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Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World

Written by

Mary Ruefle
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Year

2003
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When I was forty-five years old, I woke up on an ordinary day, neither sunny nor overcast, in the middle of the year, and I could no longer read. It was at the beginning of one of those marvelous sentences that only Nabokov can write: "Mark felt a sort of delicious pity for the frankfurters. . . ." In my vain attempts I made out felt hat, prey, the city of Frankfurt. But the words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I had loved and lived in but would never see again. I needed reading glasses, but before I knew that, I was far far away.

The book I was reading I was rereading. Because some time before that terrible day I had reached a juncture in my reading life that is familiar to those who have been there: in the allotted time left to me on earth, should I read more and more new books, or should I cease with that vain consumption—vain because it is endless—and begin to reread those books which had given me the intensest pleasure in my past, books I had all but forgotten in their details, but loved in the shadows they cast over me, the moods created by the very thoughts of them. And there was curiosity, too, the curiosity of revisiting and remeeting. Some gigantic memory might strike me as being rather small in the flesh, or the altogether unremembered might strike me dead at a glance. It is not like returning to places; we don't find ourselves, in the fourth chapter of Madame Bovary, searching for the bakery that is no longer there. Our curiosity is always self-directed: have I changed? Do I still love the Makioko sister who has diarrhea on the train in the last sentence? Is that the last sentence? Was I too young when I read Proust?

I read Proust when I was in my twenties. I rationed that novel by reading one volume a year. I had a friend whose father was a man of letters, and he had said that once you read Proust there was no reason to ever read again, you had reached the end of reading, and as I was young and respected him enormously, I was afraid to finish that book, my incessant and increasing love for it was all wrapped up in this grotesque fear that my inner life was coming to an end before it had even begun. Which was correct. That's the cookie, isn't it? As for the larger statement—that once you read Proust there is no reason to read again—I found that, like most things, it was both true and untrue.

Is there a right time to read each book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match? I heard someone say, at a party, that D. H. Lawrence should be read during one's late teens and early twenties. Since I was nearing thirty at the time, I made up my mind never to read him. And I never have. Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But as Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway. What love is ever any different?

There was one book I read not only at the right age, but on the right afternoon, in the right place, at the right angle. I read The Waves on an island, on a plotless day, when I was twenty-two years old, sitting on a terrace from which I could see in the distance the ocean, and the horizon where it met the sky and the changing light that played there as the sun climbed to its zenith and descended again while I thumbed the pages and my blood pressure washed up and down with the words. The Waves is not one of my favorite books. But my memory of reading it is. I was very silly when I was young. I have that to be thankful for.

I was very serious when I was in high school. I must have been, for my two memorable reading experiences from that time are very serious indeed. Both of them took place, of all places, in the classroom. Some English periods we were assigned to simply sit and read silently. We were reading The Return of the Native (or was it The Mayor of Casterbridge?), our silent minds on different pages. I was not in the classroom of course; I was in Wessex. And there came the inevitable Wessexian moment: a letter, the letter, the one that would make everything okay, in the act of being slipped under a closed door, got wedged under the carpet on the other side, where no one would see it. This was awful. What happened then I could not foresee: my arm threw the book as hard as it could across the quiet room. Mrs. Pacquette asked me to explain myself. All I could do was stammer that it was awful, awful, awful. She supposed I meant the book. I did not. I meant the thing that was going to happen in the book, because no one was going to read the letter. Therefore I was not going to read the book. In retrospect I see that even then I was engaged in the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading. Hardy grew up to be one of my beloveds, as did Kafka, to whom it happened next. "The Burrow" was in one of our textbooks. As the class sat reading silently, the silence seemed different. I was infuriated by my inability to understand what was happening in the story. What was happening? Deep inside myself I could not believe that anyone else was actually reading. I was convinced that a mistake had been made, that the printing plates—for I pictured them as such—had gotten smashed and all mixed up. There was a mistake. Was I the only one who noticed? Hadn't the teachers bothered to read the story? Their secret was out! There was a very special kind of attention that only I was able to pay to the story—it was absurd. And then I had a moment of doubt. Who wrote this? Perhaps he was the mistake, and not the story. I sat in the silent classroom and I heard all kinds of things—I heard the non-ticking clock tick, and the sweat beginning to form on my body, and the window glass was about to break into pieces. The pencil sharpener on the wall was salivating. I flipped to the back of the book where there were brief paragraphs about each of the authors, who they were, where they came from, what they wrote. Yes, I was certain now, the mistake was not in the story, but in its author. There was a mistake in the man. There had to be a mistake in the man because I was told where and when he wrote but not why. And of all the stories in our book, this was the one that remained starved and unfed unless I learned why he wrote it at all. I decided to hate the author. I decided to hate the author because he made me feel as if all my life I had been waiting for something to happen, and it was happening and it was not going to happen. It was many years before I understood that this was the secret labyrinth of reading, and there was a secret tunnel connecting it to my life.

I find nothing in my life that I can't find more of in books. With the exception of walking on the beach, in the snowy woods, and swimming underwater. That is one of the saddest journal entries I ever made when I was young.

Reading is hazardous. Here is a true story that proves it: a Chinese student, having read The Scarlet Letter, saw an American in China wearing a high school letter jacket with the letter A on the front and said, I know what that means.

Hazardous even to the initiated: recently I was reading the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-1971). I was also reading, for the first and last time in my life, my own private journals, which I began writing when I was sixteen and ceased to write when I was forty. As is my habit, I was copying selected passages from the Seferis into a notebook. Later that evening I began reading a journal I kept twenty years ago. In it, I was reading the notebooks of the poet George Seferis (1900-1971) and had copied into the journal by hand my favorite passage, which was identical with the passage I had copied earlier in the day, believing completely that I had never encountered it before: But to say what you want to say you must create another language and nourish it for years & years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, and with what you will never find again.

"Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far away from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe."—Kafka in a letter, 1904

"What kind of book would that dazzling human animal Consuelo sit down to read after she had finished wiping the blood off her hands and hidden once more her machete in the piano?"—Stevens in a letter, 1948

There was an anthology, a fat Bantam paperback with a glossy white cover (like the White Album) and something like an abstracted dove embossed on it, called Modern European Poetry, and it was mine, my joy and my solace when I was in high school; whatever problems I had with Hardy and Kafka in the classroom vanished in the solitude of my bedroom, which I shared with Rilke, Lorca, Montale, Eluard, Ritsos—everybody was in that book, I didn't have another book I loved half so much. I must have read it a hundred times, and then I grew up, and went out into the world, and promptly lost it.

I've often thought in acting classes they should make the actors perform scenes in which they are simply reading. And I've wondered what subtle—or remarkable—differences there might be between the outward appearance of reading different books. Early Tolstoy versus late Tolstoy might be an advanced assignment that kind of thing. Or would they all appear the same? The outward idleness, almost slumbering, that does nothing to convey the inner activity, whether it be reverie, shock, hilarity, confusion, grief. We don't often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on their chest.

I don't know what my face conveyed while I was reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. It takes place in the desert and I read it in front of a wood stove during a four-day blizzard. I suppose it is very odd that I single this book out instead of, say, Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, an equally violent, anguished book, but I do. I've always defended Pillars as an unspeakable achievement in literature and disorder. In blood and displacement and an English lost in sand. Read only the first chapter and you will have read the human fate, "the implanted crookedness of things." I am exaggerating of course. Like a book.

There is a world which poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

For years I planned a theoretical course called "Footnotes." In it, the students would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text—I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) and in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

"The burrow has probably protected me in more ways than I thought or dared to think while I was inside it. This fancy used to have such a hold over me that sometimes I have been seized by the childish desire never to return to the burrow again, but to settle down somewhere close to the entrance, to pass my life watching the entrance, and gloat perpetually upon the reflection—and in that find my happiness—how steadfast a protection my burrow would be if I were inside it."—Kafka, "The Burrow"

I had recently one of the most astonishing experiences of my reading life. On page 248 in The Rings of Saturn, W. C. Sebald is recounting his interviews with one Thomas Abrams, an English farmer who has been working on a model of the temple of Jerusalem—you know, gluing little bits of wood together—for twenty years, including the painstaking research required for historical accuracy. There are ducks on the farm and at one point Abrams says to Sebald, "I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind." It is an odd thing to say, but Sebald's book is a long walk of oddities. I did not remember this passage in particular until later the same day when I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds. Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks' plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one's heart and the long years that have led to the moment. I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my own writing.

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That's why I read when I was a lonely kid and that's why I read now that I'm a scared adult. It's a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don't have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can't read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write "The giraffe speaks!" in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

In the 2001 Kentucky Derby, which I watched live on television, Keats ran against Invisible Ink. There was no way I was going to miss this race. But I waited in vain for one of the sportscasters to mention that Keats was an English poet whose only surviving descendants must live in Kentucky, where his older brother had immigrated, remained healthy, and had children, and I waited in vain for someone to mention the poet's famous epitaph—Here lies one whose name was writ in water—and its curious connection to Invisible Ink. In all the network, that great kingdom of connection, what had been read or remembered? It was as sad as a horse's eye. Keats lost. Invisible Ink placed third, but had he been second, he would have showed.

Against the Grain. Nightwood. "The Dead." Notes from Underground. Fathers and Sons. Eureka. The Living. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Sun Also Rises. My Little Home. Venus in Transit. The Wings of the Dove. The Journal of an Understanding Heart. Wuthering Heights. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Tristes Tropiques. The Tale of Genji. Black Sun. Deep Ocean Organisms which Live without Light. The Speeches of a Dictator. The Fundamentals of Farming. The Physics of Lift. A Complete History of Alchemy. Opera for Idiots. Letters from Elba. For Esme With Love and Squalor. The Walk. The Physiology of Drowning. The Physicians Desk Reference. Bleak House. The Gospel According to Thomas. A Biography of Someone You've Never Heard Of. Forest Management. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Travels in Desert Arabia. The Collected Works of Paul Valéry. A Book Written in A Language You Do Not Understand. Withdrawn. The Worst Journey in the World. The Greatest Story Ever Told. A Guide to Simple First Aid.