If a book hasn’t shaken you up even a little after three chapters, you must lay it aside, since the very purpose of reading is to set all your previous clarities resonating at incompatible frequencies.
If skimming is illicit, then so should be the flock of ice dancers in white down swooping over their own reflections to the strains of “Swan Lake” performed by the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra for the Swedish Royal Family sipping steaming toddies in their gold-curtained opera box under a dome aswarm with the Milky Way.
Do not mistake reading for actual life, which suffers from lack of both compression and dynamic focus; note the prolonged mundane stretches no editor would stand for, the proliferation of characters and incidents that apparently contribute nothing to the advancement of plot. Also, as you may have noticed, the protagonist comes across as muddled, inept, though neither in the comedic nor in the ironically reflexive post-tragic sense. The main problem with reality is that you aren’t allowed to skim it.
Do not mistake actual life for reading. Inside your brain, there is no homunculus waxing lyric on the events of your day, so you must quit feeding him truffles, and shoo away his attendants with their ostrich-feather fans.
As song preceded speech, so reading came before writing: our palaeohuman ancestors perused the compositions of coastlines and interpreted the displacements of clouds.
Even now, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In the third trimester, the tiny/outsized head moves back and forth in a readerly manner, spooky eyes open, the text (as yet) unidentifiable.
If you need to escape, the way is always diagonal: use the helical flow to slingshot you free from any vortex. Those who fight the text directly always go under.
You must ascertain the title of anything being read or even merely carried in a restaurant, airport, etc., despite the fact that in doing so, you will probably violate public mores regarding the acceptable length and intensity of visual contact with strangers and their possessions, or invasion of personal space. When at the shore, you must trespass under vacationers’ umbrellas in order to rifle through their beach bags and dig out their paperbacks. This is as close as you can get to what you actually crave: the Universal Blending of Minds—at least, as close as you can get for now.
The fact that you’re relishing every nuance of a particular book doesn’t exclude you from reading others as well, and savoring them no less intensely, or from maintaining by your bedside a pile of books continually on the verge of collapse, or from loading the trunk of your car with several such piles, which is why your rear tires have to be replaced twice as frequently as the front. You don’t consume only one kind of food per meal, so why should you be bound to just one book at a time? Anyone you might happen to kiss will taste on your breath an intricate comingling of textual flavors that is nothing less than ambrosial.
When you write, your inside becomes your outside, which becomes, through other people’s reading, their insides.
But your inside is already largely combinations and amalgamations of everything you’ve experienced, much of which comes to you from the outside filtered, cross-filtered, changed, and changed again from having passed through so many people’s insides.
Only if all the people in the world died or disappeared but the books remained could there be an outside without an inside. This is as unlikely as it is ontologically problematic.
One of the names for this not happening is history.
A certain restaurant rewards school children with pizza for finishing a pre-established number of books. This practice contaminates the very act of reading by turning it into a consumer experience, and should be immediately outlawed, unless adults can get in on it as well.
Your reading self is actually all your selves turning the pages of everything you’ve ever read in a spectral library. There you are in saddle shoes, laboring through your first chapter book. And there is the-you-of-thirty-years-ago, practically inhaling the words of a poet the current-you dismisses. And there is the-you-of-a-few-hours-ago, opening a novel already digested in the 90’s but since then so thoroughly forgotten that re-reading now it will turn out to be, no pun intended, a genuinely novel experience.
When this-morning’s-you lifts her head to unkink her neck and unfocus her eyes, she glimpses all the other you’s in all the other chairs. But when the youngest-you does the same, she sees that she is utterly alone.
It’s a frenzy, the newscasters will say, It’s the close of an age gone by! as the people consume portions of text, comparing various authors’ aftertastes, vomiting Proust, wetting down volumes with whiskey, and when, a good hour before official conflagration time some dimwit lights a cigarette, how everyone will scramble to get out, get out: first the underglow and then the great rushing as the top layers ignite, rise up, only to be sucked down into the vacuum of paragraphs melting together, mere pulp and ink, all the stories long since keyed and scanned and uploaded into digital heaven. But apart from their Ur-texts in the dimensional universe, those signals won’t hold together; at the next log-on there will be nothing but empty screens. Then everyone will look around shyly at each other, as though for the first time. Someone will have to invent plot all over again. And after that, paper.
Claire Bateman | Mudlark No. 44 (2011) Contents | when I was your age