Reading Journeys – the Great Adventure

25 Dec

The reading journey that we choose to follow is one of life’s great adventures. One book leads to the discovery of another. The work of one author directs us toward that of a new author. And what can be more exciting to the life of the mind than discovering the work of a powerful writer whom one hasn’t read before? Often these are chance encounters – a book review seen in a Sunday newspaper, a cover or title that catches the eye in a second hand book shop, the recommendation of a friend or stranger…  And this journey of the mind means that I, a teacher of economics, living in a provincial town in a country of no significance, can gain access to the fine minds and imaginations of people whom I could never hope to meet.

The great adventure begins in childhood. As noted, I loved the books of Tove Jansson and am rediscovering their magic as I read them to my two young children. A Christmas gift of The Chrysalids from a family friend led me to the works of John Wyndham and onto the science fiction section of the local library.

As an adult reader, my journey began when I’d completed my A Levels at college. For two years, I’d read nothing for my own pleasure, feeling that I ought always to be studying some academic text or other. In fact, I didn’t read that many textbooks either as I’d lost a couple of college books and was persecuted by the librarian every time I entered the college library and wasn’t allowed to borrow anything new. As you can see, I’ve been left psychologically scarred by the experience… The day after I’d finished my last exam, I rushed off to the local town library and took out four novels (that was the limit back in those days). My choice was informed by the sci-fi that I’d read as a teenager, but it set me off toward undiscovered lands. Of the four titles, I remember only two, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’d read Animal Farm a couple of times already and Brave New World was a re-read, but I devoured both books with relish. The library staff complained that the pickle had stuck the pages together (okay, bad joke…). The world lay trapped in the Cold War permafrost and Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to be a book for the times. It led me to Orwell’s other books but also to finding out more about the composition of the novel. And in so doing, I came across books said to have influenced Orwell in writing his masterpiece – We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, brilliantly written novels of ideas that eclipsed pretty much everything that I’d read before. And The Aerodrome led me to Warner’s remarkable œuvre from the ’30s and ’40s.  The sci-fi section of the library, dominated then by the bright yellow covers of Gollancz SF editions was soon forgotten. There would be no more Eric Frank Russell or Jack Vance or A E van Vogt for me.

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Who knows where the journey may lead us?

Every itinerary is unique to the individual reader. At any time, it might take off in some new and unexpected direction. Inspecting, for the first time, the items on the bookshelf of someone known to us, provides us with an insight into their character, even when most of them turn out to be unread (beware, friends, I’m psychoanalysing you). Occasionally, desiring to connect with like minds, I’ve found myself herded in with others on that literary package tour we call the reading group. My enjoyment of the journey has always been diminished. My time for reading is too limited and precious to have eleven or twelve of the books that I read each year chosen for me by other people. The choices seemed to be books that I’d read before or ones I’d never have chosen in a thousand years. ‘Only connect’ ran the aphorism in E M Forster’s Howard’s End. Ah, well, seems I missed my connection, then. 

And onward the journey goes. There have been further occasions when mine has come to a temporary halt, studying for a degree, starting a new and highly demanding job, but always it’s been resumed. The writers of the Oulipo – Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau – the great Czech writers Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma, modern American masters Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey, Thomas Pynchon and Harper Lee, marvellous mavericks such as Ismail Kadare, W G Sebald and Angela Carter, the fantastic worlds of the Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  Mario Vargas Llosa and most recently for me, Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives is one of the best books that I’ve read to date)… and that’s to name but a few. Who knows what we might discover next?

Well, I’m off to my rural writing retreat in a few days’ time where there’s no Internet, so there’ll be no new posts from me for a while… For my tribute to the writers of the Oulipo, please see Extract 2 from ‘The Great English Novel’. Happy New Year!

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New destinations await us

All text and images © PSR

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7 Responses to “Reading Journeys – the Great Adventure”

  1. anytimefrances December 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Yes, it is a lifetime’s adventure. Everytime I finish a good book I feel I’ve achieved something, like climbing a mountain; to see the world as someone else sees it who has the special gift of bringing life before your eyes.

    I was reading a collection of various essays recently in a comprehensive volume on Literature and came across one on the realist novel as it came about in France. Balzac it seems is the big name in French realist writing but Zola too is known for the genre which is seems developed only in the 19th C. A very important one is his L’Assommoir. I happened to have it unread on my shelf and got started on it without having to search about. It’s very good. I’m quite a slow reader and only half-way through it but enjoying every page. It’s good to have something you can turn to every day and know it will bring pleasure.

    It’s the third I’ve read now of his 20 vol series of Rougon-Macquart stories. The characterisation is superb and the hero of his Nana is born to the main character Gervaise in this one; they are so bound up together I’d imagine you could go from one to another drawn by curiosity.

    Its a pity more recognition isn’t given to reading good literature these days. I was very sad to see, going back to Manchester uni’s extra-mural studies a few years ago, how the literature lectures were down to a few and the computer ones had mushroomed to take their place.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves December 25, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Hi, Franny and thanks for your interesting comments. Reading is, as you say, as though one were perceiving the world through another’s consciousness – a remarkable experience.

    Zola feels remarkably modern as a writer, doesn’t he? As you say, in our dumbed-down, gnat’s attention span universe, such works don’t get the attention that they deserve. In his home country things seem to be better. Most French towns have more than one independent book shop, their shelves packed with literary works.

    I’m a slow reader too, savouring and digesting every page of a good book. But it’s not a race, is it, in any case? Reading fast is overrated!

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves December 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    Oh, and there’s synchronicity for you, Franny. I notice that the linked extract to this post contains a reference to Zola!

  4. Lunar Euphoria December 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Reading IS an exciting journey. You have characterized it well. I have mixed feelings about reading groups. I often long to have someone else to share thoughts with on a great book, but then yes, it requires giving up a bit of my autonomy for that joy.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves December 27, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks very much for your comments. What percentage of your autonomy you have to cede depends upon how many books you’re able to read in a year. Time always seems to be in short supply for me (demanding job, single dad, etc.) so a dozen books equate to a sizable proportion of my reading material for the year. So they’re not for me. I still meet for a curry from time-to-time with the very pleasant bunch that I met in my last group but I don’t attend book meetings. Win-win situation!

    My top tip – join a reading group for a while, then leave but keep in touch with like-minded readers and share your reading experiences over coffee/beer/food (delete as appropriate).

  6. lkafle December 30, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    Reblogged this on lava kafle kathmandu nepal.

  7. Paul Sutton Reeves January 7, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Hi Lava Kafle in Kathmandu! Thanks for the re-blog – it’s much appreciated.

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