Paradise is a Library in my Dreams
I daydream of a perfect, untroubled retreat. I would inhabit an archetypal library. Shelves and shelves of books, and galleries above with more shelves; an ark of joy and knowledge, filled with every kind of book, every title I could remember or imagine. Long chambers with lofty ceilings, climate so clement it never obtrudes, tapestries and carpets to muffle noise, but no other soul to disturb my sanctuary. Huge bay windows to lie snugly in, where sunshine pours down, illuminating every page. A fresh water fountain, a piping samovar of coffee, a sideboard of sundry snacks. All adding up to contentment, rolling onwards through the years, exploring the myriad worlds between a million covers.
From another angle, this library would be a gray limbo, leeching the life out of me. No other warm-blooded people, no electrifying love, no physical challenges, no planes trains and automobiles, no real-world adventures. Those myriad pages couldn't contain the solid buildings of life, just two-dimensional blueprints of it.
I am an ambivert. This paradise would starve my extrovert, but deeply fulfill the introvert half of my nature. There are many parts of life that can't be trapped in books. But there are other facets of life, of human nature, of meaning and mystery, that we tap into more deeply in books than anywhere else in our our random, bustling, numbing lives.
You, dear reader, are more complex and surprising than Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ever was. His complete self is cramped into one and a half thousand lines, fixed forever, never evolving. You have dozens of sides to your nature - and tomorrow another side might appear. But Hamlet has been edited much better than your life, to refine a Hamlet who is all pith, and depth, and shimmering meaning. The play and its star have intrigued enough professors to fill several shelves of our library with books full of theories about them. Hamlet strikes our souls with phrases and questions that resonate with our own doubts and dreams. You and I have to muddle and trip through our days: we write grocery lists, talk babytalk to our babies, and sometimes we fumble the punchlines of jokes. While that infernal Dane is eternally witty and wise, mysterious and compelling.
A good book strips away the boring and trivial parts, the fat and gristle of living, and gives us the choicest cuts, deliciously cooked and seasoned. Joyce's Ulysses is packed with apparently random and unimportant minutiae of an everyday in Dublin - but Joyce spent years choosing the richest words to express each detail, and fitting all those details to his plots and patterns of beauty. A great novel takes all the tedium and sloppiness of repetitive living, the long coal-seams of dreary existence, and compresses and cuts them into perfect diamonds. The everydayness falls away, and we see only the dazzling epiphanies of a life packed with meaning, from the littlest details to the cosmic designs informing them.
How I Drifted away from Reading Novels
My family have always burrowed into books. From my eighth year to eighteen, we were vagabonds, living in more than twenty places in seven countries. That was when I learned to always carry a book. When you're stuck in a train station for six hours, a gripping book is an umbrella against storms of boredom. To the tumbleweed I was, a book and a snack felt halfway like home.
You may not share my nomadic experience of Europe. But you're reading a diary about my love affair with novels, so I'm guessing you know for yourself the other half of my teenage world: discovering Tolkein, Vonnegut, Twain, Hesse, and whatever cheap paperbacks I found abandoned in our latest flat's bookcase. That archetypal library I painted is a daydream, but the empire of endless books is one we've all explored over the years. Our maps multiply in college and beyond, as we find a hundred other authors, and dig deeper into the subjects and genres that speak straight to our hearts.
Nevertheless, over the years I lost my way, and abandoned the empire. There were many contributing factors. Work overwhelmed my life. Away from work, I always wanted the strongest not-work I could find. I'd launch myself into the adventures of Los Angeles, or I'd vegetate into the TV or my bong. My muscles of attention were worn out from the lab, and weren't looking for the subtle explorations that novels offer.
The greediest thief of book-reading-time was the internet. I'd check Daily Kos and The Guardian every day, and most days half a dozen other sites too. It felt important, that I was keeping on top of things. If Bush and Cheney were taking us to Hell in a handbasket, at least I got to know every circle intimately, as we spiraled on down.
The internet is an easy place to live. You check your bookmarked sites, pick their top stories to peruse - aren't you discriminating, aren't you in control and aware? Yes, to a point. It mostly depends on how you go about it. But it is too easy, it does suck you in, it absorbs your time and mind if you let it. It pushes so many of the right buttons in our egos and our pleasure centers. We feel smart, and curious. We get to pick which links to click, we're building our knowledge of the world, we're comparing different perspectives.
In this bamboozled nation, where millions get spoonfed bullshit by Fox News and talk radio, we who contrast and compare dozens of internet sources are, indeed, way ahead of the crowd. We are very well-informed. But are we truly thinking for ourselves? Well, we are exercising inquisitive and analytical parts of our mind. But there are other kinds of attention, and empathy, and creative imagining, which novels feed but the internet starves.
Escaping from the Engine of my Enchantment
Several years ago, I was getting through only a couple of novels in a year. At most. I was stuffing my head with junk-reading on the internet, missing all the essential vitamins of mind and soul that the best books are packed with. My sense of inner wonder was starting to get scurvy - I just didn't recognize the symptoms. Then a crisis/opportunity fell on me: my computer died. Through depression, lack of funds, sheer Luddite perversity, I left it so.
I had plenty of unread books on my shelves. But I found it an arduous mental trek to get all the way through a novel. Mostly because my attention span was shot. I had become an internet reader. So I'd open a novel, but I'd feel antsy after half an hour. I missed the web's continual morsel-all-gone satisfaction.
I went a couple of years before I got another computer (partly waiting for the next generation of iMac to appear). After a few months I could stretch out my mind, and enjoy a few hours in a row of immersive reading. Then I discovered I was a much better reader than I used to be. Perhaps - as I've sometimes found with video games - just not reading much for a few years allowed me to get better. I like the counter-intuitiveness of that. More likely, decades of life-experience, of reading books and people had wrought a larger, subtler, more focused awareness in me. Or I had just reached a stage of life where I hungered to swim in books.
I never used to reread books, because there were so many untasted books tempting me. But, on a whim, I picked up The Great Gatsby, which I'd read as a teenager. I found so much more there than I'd seen the first time. Fitzgerald was very proud of that book, for all the craft, beauty and meaning he packed into it.
When I first read The Great Gatsby, it was an enjoyable and easy read. But I came back to it with much more experience and knowledge of books. The second time, I saw about four times as much there - but 3/4 of the book is implicit: in characters' life histories that are sketched but not filled in, unless you really watch for every clue; in the different characters' levels of awareness, what some pick up on and others miss; in the tragic undercurrents of all the romance; and in the symbols and myths and American dreams which jump out at an experienced reader.
Novels Seduce us to Collaborate in Creation
There are just so many things going on in a good novel, so much to look at and touch. It's quite stupendous how there are hundreds aspects of reality you can attend to when world-building in a novel - but if you can get any dozen of them about right, those will fill your readers' attention, and they won't notice that you haven't once mentioned, e.g., the weather, meals, fashions or the sounds of neighbors. If you invent enough vitality to convince yourself of your world, your readers will buy it too.
I find so many charms in fine novels, too many to explore in this diary. There are dozens of diaries behind all those doors. My favorite magic of all is how a novel can play more deeply and intimately on my mind than any other work of art. Yes, there are special pleasures in every field: how a pop song can make me swoon so fast; how a movie can fascinate my eyes for a two-hour thrill-ride into a fully textured and perfectly drawn world; how a museum can teach me a thousand things I'd never imagine.
My favorite novels contain more humanity, story, meaning, and the potential to imagine in every direction my mind can turn to. A skilled novelist, at the top of their game, conducts the different sides of my mind, heart and spirit like an orchestra. They teach me, they stretch me, they show me new ways of seeing. They can intuit which seeds to plant, and they leave me ample space to grow those trees (be they characters, places, themes) through the hundreds of pages of their book.
Consider Charles Dickens, who named about a thousand characters in all his books. He had that human intuition to the level of genius. He knew what we loved and hated in human nature, what we found curious, what we found funny, and how to show or hint these and hundreds of other aspects of personality. What amazes me is how few strokes of the pen he needs to do it. He'll have a character walk onstage, he'll give us two sentences of observation - perhaps he'll describe a garment, a gesture, and one feature. And he's picked his words so carefully, that his readers now see that urchin as if he stood before us.
Firstly, that's a powerful gift. Secondly, there's more going on than we notice. Dickens's readers have each been given a small seed, but they've each started growing their own personal version of Oliver Twist. They're investing Dickens's creations with their own visions of Victorian society; their own feelings about children, poor people, thieves (and many other things); perhaps also with their imperfect memories of movies, plays and musicals they've seen this same character in.
You can see how effective Dickens was at getting readers to finish imagining for him, at making buildings out of the blueprints he provided, by looking at all the movies based on Dickens's novels. He told his stories in words, and he inspired us to make movies out of them. Most of us played those movies in our own heads, and dozens of directors turned their versions into actual movies for cinemas. Dickens has a particularly cinematic way of storytelling, but he's also strumming chords in his books that don't translate as well to movies. When I read the novels, I might stop and ponder his views on society and morality, on what it takes to be good or successful or happy, or the joys he so relished when diving into the scrumptious details of his delicious feasts.
Good writers have distinct personalities and styles of writing, but are also in touch with what we all find important. They can tell what's essential in humanity, in morality, in storytelling, in drawing a character or sketching a plot. They map out the essence, they add their personal flair to it, and then they leave the rest to us. They trust that their best readers will invest their whole selves, will do the work, will finish the job of writing their book.
I love that, when I'm reading a really good book, it's teaching me to think, feel, imagine and write better for myself.
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