As a reader, I am inexcusably fast. I say inexcusably, because as a writer I am learning the value of words, syntax, rhythm – the deliberate choices one must make while telling a story. Those details matter and they should matter to me as a reader.
One of my blogging friends, Bill over at pinklightsabre’s blog had referenced one of his favorite books several times, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Despite my voracious and eclectic reading habits, I’ve never read anything by Joyce and decided that it was time. I’m only 40 pages in and I started reading it four days ago, an hour at a time. It’s slow going. Normally, I can put a book away in four days.
I’ve been stuck on re-writes for my own first novel, never gaining traction on the kind of writing I know I’m capable of – the frustration of knowing the story, knowing what it could be and never feeling that it will get there. So I flopped in my reading chair with Joyce, bathed by illusory sunlight. I say illusory because it’s -6°F/-21ºC with a windchill 18 degrees colder. Even the cats don’t find warmth on the window seat.
What Mr. Joyce does in a page, even a paragraph, puts my novel to shame. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook and pen next to me while reading. I’ve re-read several passages over and over, unwilling to move on until I figure out the puzzle. How did he do that? How did he put me so easily inside a child’s mind, shivering and homesick? How did he switch back and forth from imaginary scenes to reality, between past and present?
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to work at reading. The last time was with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are not quick reads, because the devil is in not absorbing the details, of not sticking with the shifts in perspective and time. It’s easy to get lost.
I tend to write without frills. There isn’t an adjective I fear striking through or a very, really, so that doesn’t get deleted. But I see the problem with brevity. Yes, I’ve communicated a story and yes, the reader wants to know what happened, but I haven’t brought them through the looking-glass. I end up writing a news story, not creating a world.
Today, I put down Joyce’s novel and sat silently, feeling rather emotional. I’d forgotten one of the most basic joys of reading – being there. My comfortable chair in the sunlight disappeared. I was in a boys’ dormitory. It was dank, dark, miserably chilling. I missed home. I was scared of the dark and the lurking shapes and eyes imagined. I was no longer inside my own head.
While a good writer is capable of transporting us, taking us out of ourselves and away from our mundane lives, there is little he or she can do if, as a reader, I don’t take the time to absorb the story. As a writer, it’s natural that my writing would suffer in the details, if I don’t notice them while reading.
For all my desire to write fiction, I read a preponderance of nonfiction. And I feel the effects rather acutely while working on the novel. I’m not sure when it happened, but I began to read to acquire information and not for the sheer pleasure of reading.
On this brittle day, when cabin fever is at its February peak, James Joyce reminded me of the passion that put me on the writing path in the first place – getting lost in a world entirely not my own.
Books about Reading and Writing:
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (seriously, how perfect a name is that?)
Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda