the dance of the words
"The books we love do ruthlessly disclose something about us, as do the books we do not. And despite everything above, I am not certain I want to know what exactly my inability to read some great writers says about me."
- Tom Bissell, 'I'd prefer not to,' an essay published for Salon.com
I honestly thought I was the only one.I found the list of what someone, somewhere, decided was the 'hundred greatest books of the twentieth century' and, like the dutiful child I am, set out to 'better myself.'
Perhaps if I read the words, absorbed the craft, and submerged myself in the art of the well-written book, I would find a way to fill the lack of understanding within myself that has, up to now, prevented me from writing to the limits of my capability and talent. Perhaps the smell of the ink and the dance of the words would subconsciously influence the shift and sway of the still-fetal words nestled snugly in the recesses of my own mind. After all, if you provide a troubled person with acquaintances of goodly character, they often reform; why shouldn't the same be true of a hesitant, still-green writer?
But I have had this secret. I read the books. Some I loved. Some I liked. Some I finished with a breath redolent of frustration and relief—"Oh, thank God that is over." Some I found myself hating so badly that I could not even finish the first five chapters, much less the book.
What, I thought, does this say about me, the green girl who vacillates between graphic artist, writer, and coder? Does my inability to spontaneously embrace and adore some of the 'greats' of literature stand as the greatest testament to the improbability that I shall ever write something worthy of preservation and study?
I loved Kurt Vonnegut for his vivid imagination.
I hated Theodore Dreiser for tracing his world with ever more leaden words until his world bowed and broke beneath the sheer weight of his prose.
I loved Edith Wharton and Jane Austen for the same reason I repeatedly fell asleep to Henry James: the rigidity of society, the sharpness of observation, and the minutiae of detail.
I don't even like Hemingway. God knows I've tried. I can see the beauty in his prose—even the blind could reach out and feel the supple grace of his words in the same way they could feel the steel behind a dancer's muscle. While I love the beauty of his phrasing, I find myself locked out from the soaring joy that others seem to find in his work.
I could go on, and normally I would, but the minutes tick by as I sit here, ranting. You get the point; you have undoubtedly endured it yourself: the book so dull and enervating that by the end of chapter three you are dreaming of nothing more than burrowing your nose down into the side of the book for a long….dreamless … wordless … sleep.
I have been in love with the power of the written word for as long as I can remember. I do not remember a time in which I could not read, but I do remember the day that I fell in love with books.
Fourth grade. The end of the year.
Third grade, for the rest of you, for I'd been double-promoted at the beginning of the year. It was standardized test time. How to explain that I loved standardized tests? I treated them as a game, a game to be finished quickly and perfectly, and my reward was immediate: the book I brought with me that day.
The week before standardized tests that year, I had gotten daring and gone down to the 'adult fiction' section of the local library. The book I chose: Gone With The Wind. Why? I don't even remember my reasons now. But I raced through the questions and dove guiltily into my book.
It took me two days to get it. The first day, I plodded through the dialect, unable to conjure the 'magic moment'—when the words on a page stop being printed words, and become something best described as a voice, telling me a story inside my head.
When that moment comes, I don't see words. I hear. It is magic—the most addictive magic I have ever known. I know this now, but the child I was didn't know that then—so when the words left the page and took light and wing, I was entranced. I stayed up late, reading. I finished the tests as quickly as I could, so that I could sink my eyes into the ink and paper and open them in the space of another world.
I believed then that the magic could carry me through any book.
As a college student, I learned differently. I learned that there were books that, no matter how hard I tried to let go, to let the words flow at their own pace, never took wing. They remained—mortal, almost—just…words. The reading of words, a single, mechanically-printed word at a time, was the most leaden and depressing thing I had ever found.
Two years later I left the field of literature, depressed and discouraged, and doubting that I would ever return. I always assumed that the success or failure of the process of connection with a book was entirely up to me, that if I was unable to see the author's intended beauty that I was always the one at fault. If I was incapable of appreciating 'art,' how could I be expected to craft anything artlike of my own?
This from the same woman who curled her toes in delight and laughter at the sly mockery of Nobokov's Pale Fire, who cried at the end of the last John Irving book she read…and who sat at her desk at the end of the fourth grade, silently mouthing the words to Gone With The Wind as the transcription of antebellum life slowly came to life within her mind.
How strange it is to find that I'm not the only person who can face some particular 'works of art' and see nothing. All along, I'd assumed that a book's inclusion in the 'canon of English literature' meant that I would be able to not just appreciate it, but enjoy it, just by virtue of its artistic merit.
Maybe now I'll feel a little more free to say, "Yes, this is supposedly a great work of art, and I don't care what you say, you silly professors, but I think it stinks!"
Joseph Conrad and Theodore Dreiser, I'm coming for you guys. I want all the time I spent on The Secret Agent and Sister Carrie back, please…