Releasing words from the page

In the opening pages of Teju Cole’s Open City, his narrator, the young medical resident Julius, introduces the reader to his own reading habits, setting perhaps the tone and frame of mind for the recollections and encounters that will unfold over the following pages. He explains his fondness for internet classical music stations, commercial free broadcasts from countries where the foreign languages of the announcers blend into, rather than distract from the musical tapestry. Settled with a book on the sofa he confesses that:

“Sometimes, I even spoke the words in the book out loud to myself, and doing so I noticed the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras, all of this intensified by the fact that whatever I was reading had likely been translated out of one of the European languages.”

Assuming I am not in a public space where others would likely look on in askance I am likewise inclined to read aloud to myself at times. Meditative, less conventional, writing forms itself especially to this practice, not only obvious writers like Cole or WG Sebald, but wonderfully spare and introspective works like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room or the experimental The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. And Thomas Bernhard, even though I cannot read him in the original German, flows with energy and intensity against JS Bach. I often stop and read a few pages out loud when I feel that I may be losing my moorings in the book long paragraph structure of his novels. Similarly José Saramago and Javier Marías are authors that more people might be able to connect with by inhabiting the language through reading portions out loud.

I have also had the experience of coming to appreciate a piece of literature in an entirely new way through hearing an author’s reading. Last year I read All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews, the story of two sisters, one deeply depressed and suicidal, and the other faced with the dilemma of if and how to assist her beloved sister in achieving her goal. Being much closer to my own recent breakdown and knowing that Toews had drawn on the tragic history of suicidal depression in her own family, I read it seeking insight into the suicidal sister’s perspective. I was disappointed. But hearing Miriam read from her work and having the opportunity to meet her last fall, I suddenly realized that I was expecting something the story could not deliver and had, consequently, missed the self-deprecating black humour in this challenging, compassionate tale of unconditional sibling love.

Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"
Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

So if the experience of prose can, at times, be enriched by being read out loud, poetry would seem to be an obvious aural experience. Poetry readings have a long standing literary history, joined now with the likes of slam poetry and rap. What a surprise then to have someone on another readerly space I frequent declare that he is against reading poetry aloud. Assuming he was not typing with tongue in cheek, for who can tell, my immediate response was one of disbelief. Excuse me? I cannot imagine not reading poetry out loud. I even make an effort to commit the poems that I find especially powerful to memory, to recite them, to myself and, on occasion, to others. Hearing authors read their own work has a special value and impact. Listening to a poem shared aloud by a passionate reader can allow the words to be transformed and re-interpreted in a new and personal context.

Have you ever encountered a piece of prose or a poetry so breath taking that you had to stop and re-read it, mark or circle it in the text if you are so inclined, copy it into a journal or print it out to keep close at hand? Do you feel compelled to repeat the words out loud to yourself, inspired to share them with others? For me that is the beauty of being in love with language. Sometimes words just have to spill out beyond the confines of the printed page and be granted a full existence in the world.

Gendering my bookshelves

A conversation on another bookish refuge of mine about the gender of the authors we tend to read has been both informative and unnerving. It has had me standing before the random selection of bookcases in my house taking stock of the novels lining the shelves. I have conducted no scientific calculation but I would hazard to guess that over 90% of the fiction collected, read and to be read, has been written by male authors. And that is without even digging up my electronic files.

Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.
Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.

I console myself by calling to mind a number of women peopling my hypothetical list of intentional reads for the upcoming year. But I know myself. I am idiosyncratic and tangential in my reading proclivities. I find myself unable to create a stack or list of titles and systematically make my way through from top to bottom. And although I do not intend it, novels by women are frequently pushed down the line by something else that comes into view.

Perhaps there is a question of subject and style. I am presently reading with a strong critical intention to exploring a way of telling a story that I have to tell and, for better or worse, the authors who are coming to my attention tend to be men. That may be accidental rather than intentional on my part. But my bookshelves hold a record running back over decades and the gender imbalance is consistent (and, by the way, not reflected in my non-fiction collection which tends to have a much more equal divide).

Now I could launch a defense for this heavily weighted scale. I suspect I do know some of the reasons why I am drawn to certain tales told from a male perspective, reasons rooted in my own differently gendered history, but at the end of the day I am only accountable to myself for that reality. I do not believe that I eschew female novelists on the basis of gender alone, but there are certainly stories and themes that do not draw me in. And I do not feel obligated to read women writers to understand women better, I spent the better part of four decades trying to jam my own square self into that round hole and accept that there are things I am not programmed to learn. I have female friends. I have a beautiful daughter. And it is not like I never read or fall in love with books by female authors. I am open to the opportunity to explore more. But setting a quota is disingenuous.

And feeling guilty wastes precious time that could be spent reading.

Want to write? Start with reading.

It has taken me over a week to come down after volunteering with and attending events at our recent word festival. I entered into the week slightly down and was spiraling up within a few days. If it was a test of my ability to return to regular work, this is clear evidence that my mixed state is still far from stable. But I would not have missed it for the world.

It was an absolute thrill to mingle with people who are passionate about books and listen to Canadian and international authors talk about their craft. Whenever an author was asked about his or her influences, a love of the magic of books and literature shone through in their responses. If asked about advice for want-to-be writers, the common answer was read, read, read… read widely and drink deep from the wealth that books have to offer.

The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!
The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!

And so there was this man I crossed paths with at various venues throughout the festival. He told me he was a writer. Patting the breast pocket of his jacket he indicated that he felt he was getting ready to pull together his work. He had a gold pass so I saw him a number of times but always alone, ordering a coffee or buying a glass of wine at the bar. He would acknowledge me and we would exchange a few words on whatever interview or panel we was waiting for. But I never witnessed him engaged in animated discussion with fellow attendees.

The solitary man at a venue where excited discussions about books were regularly erupting between strangers is an anomaly.

On Saturday afternoon I encountered him in the lobby. He was carrying a copy of Sweetland by Michael Crummey. I got the impression he was done with the festival regardless of the major authors still to come. He said, “I have decided, this is the one that impresses me. Let’s see if he writes as well as he talks.” I responded that I had recently obtained a copy of his previous work Galore, the novel Crummey described as the one he feels he was born to write and that I wanted to read that first. He looked at me with surprise and said, “You mean you have heard of him?”

Suddenly it dawned on me that this man, the self-described writer, does not read at all. I suppose he thought he he would be able to absorb all the final inspiration and direction from this one book. If he did not know one of the best known Canadian contemporary authors and poets, even if he had never actually read one of his books, I could not help but wonder how he imagined himself ready to pull his accumulated scratchings into a final product.

With a full evening and day still ahead, he had selected his role model. I never saw him at the theatre again.

Even if it left me swinging up on my attempt to stablize this recovery from my recent manic episode, I was deeply inspired by the talks I attended, delighted by the company of fellow book lovers and especially grateful to a few authors who took a little extra time to encourage me as writer. I was regularly reminded that it is never too late to start.

And I am never lacking for books. In fact they seem to multiply in my life on their own as any truly avid reader knows.