02 August 2011

On Reading, a preface for a preface

There are always several books open about the premises. In my cabin office lay ready the academic books to be studied during the daylight hours: books of philosophy and psychology, of pedagogy and history, of theories of science and art and the like. These are the books that feed my intellect and that inspire partly my own speculative writing. I purport to be a scholar; sometimes I behave like one. I have learned to love these books and the struggle they demand. 
And in the house by the fireplace (gas and not wood-burning) and beside the bed are the novels. These books feed my soul. It is here that I discover people living, and in the reading I share in their experiences. It is to these novels that I bring the life I have lived and thought, and it is from these novels that I go back to the world of life and thought. I understand well the difference between the cabin books and the house books, and though clearly the texts move between the two locations, the spatial metaphor is apt: I experience them differently and I enter into them with different purpose. But I have been thinking lately about the difference between the novels I have read. I experience readings differently. 
There are novels whose depths are shallow. For example, I recently read Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing and as I suggested a while ago, I am in too far to John Sayles’ mammoth novel, A Moment in the Sun to stop now. Both novels are pieces of historical fiction, the former about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to have attended Harvard College. Though we know little, really, about Caleb’s life, Brooks has written an account from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister. I assumed that Brooks has done her research and that the details accurately portray the life of the Puritans in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Indeed, Brooks’ acknowledges her debts to historians whose works I have read in the cabin. Sayles’ novel depicts events at the end of the 19th century and that helped set the issues that have determined American history for the 20th and 21st centuries. Again, I assume that Sayles has done his history; indeed, I have occasionally checked the accuracy of his narrative against historical accounts. From A Moment in the Sun I have learned a great deal of history. But in this novel, as in Caleb’s Crossing, the characters are determined by the history recounted; they can respond but they can not act. 
I have always enjoyed historical novels such as these; when I wanted to learn history I would begin with a novel about the period; I soon learned that the portrait of the historical period too often was a portrait of the author’s moment, but my attention had been piqued and often I would turn next to accounts by historians writing history to study the period. Thus, I might begin with Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and then move to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals or Gary Wills’ The Gettysburg Address. Sometimes, I would move in the other direction: I knew something about the founding of Harvard, but I wanted to know something about the daily life there in the 17th century, and so Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing promised this vision. 
But what I am thinking is that these books concern plot, and though ideas come out of the plot, the plot itself often lacks ideas. The novel is driven by events, and though there might be a dynamic between the events narrated and the events themselves, and hence an ideology a reader might understand about the novel, the book is not about that dynamic: the novel is about the events as if these events are authentically portrayed. 
But there are other novels whose depths, like those of Walden Pond, are bottomless. I am rereading Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, the second installment in Roth’s continuing narratives about the life of the writer Nathan Zuckerman. And these latter novels that are not without plot, are also not about the plot. Rather, these novels concern ideas, in Roth’s instance concerning the relationship between life and art. This is a question with which I have forever struggled in my studies. Zuckerman suffers from life even as he attempts in his fiction to make order of it. Indeed, in The Anatomy Lesson Zuckerman says, “A writer learns to stay around, has to, in order to make sense of incurable life . . .” What an interesting adjective! Incurable, indeed, life is so, though the writer struggles desperately to offer some cure for it, even if that cure discovers that no cure is available. At least, however, things are clear.  Attributing his pain to the profession of writing, Zuckerman considers giving up writing and enrolling in medical school: as a doctor, he exults, he could at least cure himself. Zuckerman appears envious of the doctor who walks away from the pain and suffering of her patients and can say, “That’s it, I’m finished, there’s nothing more to be done.” What Zuckerman discovers is that life is not at all like his fiction: what Zuckerman discovers is that unlike his books, life is “unbound, uncontainable.” Zuckerman insists that his doppelganger, Alvin Pepler, understand, as Aristotle says, that it is writers who are supposed to move the readers to pity and fear, and not life itself that should inspire fear and pity. But in fact, Zuckerman feels  only safe when he is alone, writing, and struggling with issues that his life inspired but that he could not manage in life. Zuckerman would be free from the fear and pity life inspires and live in his writing. 
It is easy to step out of an historical novel; like wading pools, they offer some refreshing coolness but don’t allow for immersion. But I never quite step out of the novel of ideas; at best I tread the water continually reaching about me to hold onto something that will keep me afloat for a while longer. From the bottomless depths another buoy always rises. There is nothing in the text itself except possibility.


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