Saturday, January 03, 2009

What We Lose

... there is one thing I notice my daughters doing when they hang around the house that makes me ache, with a terrible yearning, to be young again. They read.

Or more precisely, they read like I did when I was a girl. They drape themselves across chairs and sofas and beds — any available horizontal surface will do, in a pinch — and they allow a novel to carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time they truly don’t care about anything else.

I miss the days when I felt that way, curled up in a corner and able to get lost in pretty much any plot. I loved stories indiscriminately, because each revealed the world in a way I had never considered before.
I loved this piece by Michelle Slatall in the New York Times, envying her daughters' ability to devour books in a way she is no longer able to. :
... an inevitable byproduct of growing up ...
she reckons.

And as I read this I too could feel myself back in that space too ... absorbing book after book indiscriminately, finding it hard to come up for air. It's true, we do lose that. And I hadn't really thought about it that way before.


Satima Flavell said...

It's sad, isn't it? As we get older, new ideas are seen too rarely and the old ones have started to pall. And we start to read as more as critics and less as enthusiasts.

Anonymous said...

By coincidence, I just read another article (not recent) that mentions the girlhood pleasures of reading:

"The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading."

The whole article is somewhat unrelated (it's a review of _Twilight_) but it's here:

It's probably impossible to recapture that experience in adulthood, isn't it? I certainly haven't been able to. I'm sure many of your readers can relate to that lost time when reading was purely pleasure and you could do it hungrily and thoughtlessly, like eating sweets (or, in my case, jeruk!).

-- Preeta

Damyanti said...

I spent all of yesterday curled up in bed with a book, the holidays were exhausting, and I needed time off the computer, friends, husband, home world....I know I don't devour books as I used to, but yesterday reminded me of how books and me used to be when I was younger.

kakchik said...

I wish I could do that again. Lately, I've neglected my books for a new passion, baking, but I've tried my best to read especially while waiting for pages to download. Luckily, I managed to finish reading 8 books in a month but lost the sweet feeling of losing myself in the stories. Sad.

Lisa Lee said...

Yes, I agree, nothing better than curling up on a sofa reading. I get so absorbed reading that I forget time actually. Nice to have some soft background music and a nice hot cup of milo around too. Hehe ~


lil ms d said...

what a great essay bibs! yes i miss those days. these days, when i read fiction i feel guilty. for spending an hour or two reading. but i'm determined to get back into the reading groove and not feel guilt!

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with us... it's just that no one writes that way any more.

I can still lose myself in a good book, it's just that there aren't that many good books.

Anonymous said...

What BS, Anonymous, but I expect nothing less from you :-) . What the article and most of us are saying is not that there are no more good books; I myself recognise that there are brilliant books, far more brilliant, in fact, that much of the tripe I was ingesting as a kid. But my relationship to them has changed. It's analytical and intellectual; I can read William Trevor or Junot Diaz and feel my life changed by their brilliance; I can feel admiration, even jealousy; but I cannot feel the orgiastic pleasure I felt when I was ten years old gorging on Enid Blyton, who was, in fact, compared to Trevor or Diaz or just about ANYONE else, an atrocious writer. The loss of pleasure has nothing to do with the relative merits of the books.

But I feel bad for you if you're one of those people who believe that the world These Days -- the food, the books, the films, the people, whatever -- is just nowhere near as good as it used to be. I know other people like you and I find it a terribly sad and pitiful way to live.

-- Preeta

KittyCat said...

Oh, boy, those good old girly days of eating up 1-2 (sometimes 3!) books a day when I was 11 until about 16...

I'm comforted by the fact that my sister's and my son's starting to do that too :)

Anonymous said...

Learning to be more critical and analytical doesn't necessarily mean we can no longer lose ourselves in a book. For some of us, the day is just not complete without some time with just a book for company. My "current-reads" list always includes at least one book chosen for the sheer fun of reading it and escaping into its pages. I'm not fussy like Anon though. I can just as easily escape into a classic as I can into pulp fiction. - Daphne Lee -

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, learning to be critical and analytical *has* meant that I can no longer lose myself in a book in quite the same way, and I know I'm not at all alone in this.... As for the day not being complete without some time with just a book, well, YES -- I'm not disagreeing with any of this! You say "for some of us," Daphne, as if those of us who cannot read like adolescents anymore find our lives perfectly complete without literature -- which is not at all what we're saying! I still need books in my life. I am only saying that I (and many of my friends) cannot read as joyfully (or as quickly) as we once used to. I read a few sentences and then think about what the writer is doing, why the passage is or isn't working, how it could have been done better or worse, which words are especially apt, how I can learn from this or that sentence, etc. etc. etc. It's become a completely different process.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

If you can do all that then the writer has failed you. If it's a good story you don't think about these things. Do you ever stop for a moment to think that I might be right? well do you? :) do you think about my sentence construction, or whatever? I'm betting you don't. You just react. This proves that it's not you who has changed, it's the business (:P) of literature that has.

If you can think about these things, then the book (and the writer) has failed you.

Damyanti said...

Sometimes being a writer/editor/ literature student does give you a completely different perspective on a book, the way it works, and why it works that way.

Which means there is a certain lack of immersion.

But for those outside the writing/publishing profession, a lack of immersion can also set in with age because you become more discerning readers, with more defined tastes,which is perfectly fine. There will still be some books that can totally take you by the nose, dunk you inside their world, and it might be time for dinner before you know it.

Reading remains a pleasure either way, being more critical adds to the intensity of pleasure derived from a good book.

Excellent books are certainly being written today, even as we speak, and I just hope I live to read as many of them as I possibly can!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Daphne and Anon 3:11 to a certain extent in that my critical and analytical side rarely inhibits my enjoyment of books that I actually enjoy... ie when the writing is good enough that I can't be bothered to analyse much (in terms of writing techniques etc) cause I'm swept away by the atmosphere, emotions, questions that the story itself (paired with the writing) evokes. I've found this to be so across all genres; children's stories that are written well (including Enid Blyton's, which btw I don't find all that atrocious), even in so-called simplistic language, have the same effect of lifting my thoughts and mind's eye to a different plane altogether from this third rock from the sun.

Sorry if the above post is rambling in bits as it's being done in a bit of a hurry.


Anonymous said...

Damyanti -

I don't think there's a why about it, you just have to have a view of the world that some people consider strange, like Lewis Carroll or Terry Pratchett.

If you come across one let me know. Terry P's earlier work was great and a lot of fun. It never occurred to me that werewolves could be female, and um.. how difficult it would be to make armor for them :)

I find his later work to be more pedestrian though. Even Stephen King, who wrote "Carrie" and "It", and who was a master of suspense.. doesn't write much these days.

Rowling's first "Harry Potter" book, that was another one.

The writing itself is just a medium. It's a tool that you use to communicate. The medium is not the message.

Damyanti said...

It all depends on the kind of book and the reader.

If the reader is doing a critical reading, there is no way they will react like a child does to any book. And critical reading is the best way for a writer to better his or her craft.

If the reader is reading for pleasure, and pleasure alone, that is a different situation.

The quality of the book of course matters, but the definition of an absorbing writer cannot merely be that he or she has " a view of the world that some people consider strange". All literature would have then been reduced to fantasy.

Different books are good for different things, some hold up a mirror to humanity as it really is, and can actually hold your attention throughout.

And yes, the medium can sometimes become the message, when the sheer beauty of someone's writing holds you in thrall. I do not go to Virginia Woolf or Anne Enright solely for what they have to say, but also for the sheer power and beauty of how they say it.

What you say is important, but how you say it is equally so.

Satima Flavell said...

But surely all fiction *is* fantasy. It is made up - all lies: lies that, hopefully, show us a truth about some aspect of the human condition.

And any writer from a century or more ago, or one who comes from a different culture, is almost certainly going to have a view of the world that at least some readers would consider strange, simply because it is outside their experience.

Ursula K LeGuin is on record as saying "Fantasy is the natural method for teaching us about the soul's journey". She was, of course, talking about fantasy as a genre, but anything that is removed from our own experience will serve the same purpose, because it acts as an allegory - even, perhaps, as a parable. It can serve as "the finger pointing at the moon" - look at the finger long enough and eventually you'll see what it's pointing at. And learn something.