How do you read?

Reading a book seems a straightforward thing. Be it on a page, an e-reader, on your phone, even listening to an audio recording, we’re all in the author’s hands, following the same path on this journey. Interactive multi-media books might be coming, but they’ve not taken hold of us yet.

But I’ve recently been struck by the differences in how we carry out this simple act, how we engage with this experience. Readers have favourite ways to read. And like the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who recently wrote about her book addiction, it might be an experience so intense that it takes over your life.

Making space and time

Me? I’ve learnt to slow down. I read for the beauty of language, the clever construction of words as they create meaning and bring forth worlds.

I like to read uninterrupted—by kids, partner, fellow commuters, schedules. While I appreciate Danny Katz’s observation that the toilet provides just such a space, a numb bum takes away from the pleasure somewhat…

I won’t read until I have dedicated time to wholly engage, and in a comfortable spot. During the day, a Protestant work ethic kicks in and I feel I should be doing something else, but after dinner is perfect—on the couch, with good light and a glass of wine. Bedtime is good. Holidays and plane trips are good.

I won’t read on public transport because it’s just too bitty. Too fraught with having to engage with other people, or watch out for my stop. I worked for a man once who would read on the train to work, then along the footpath, and in the lift, only closing the book when he reached his office.

But me? I like to hold a finger in my page—or look up from an e-reader—and drift off into my own thoughts; I love the freedom of having nothing to keep pace with, nothing to miss if I wander away for a moment. And I love to reread a sentence over again, just to take in its wonder (and which is why I’m not remotely interested in audio books).

Respect!

I won’t read into the night when tiredness swamps comprehension and I find I am rereading a line three times. And I’ll stop when I start skating through, only reading for plot. Writing, good writing, is the hardest thing. When authors put their soul into each word, each sentence, to skim is to do them a disservice. That said, sometimes you just have to find out!

To share, and with whom…?

For me, reading is a solitary thing, an intensely private pastime. I’ve never wanted to join a book club. That kind of parallel reading, and sharing, leaves me cold. My own response to the author, what I take away, feels like my journey alone; other people’s responses are theirs.

But sometimes, of fellow readers, I will ask—‘What are you reading?’ It’s a shared understanding that one is always reading. I’ll ask because my kind of book club is between two only so when I find a reading soulmate, I ask. Like catching sunlight falling across a room, it won’t be there for long. A reader always moves on.

The sense of an ending

Do you pause between books? I recently read Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series straight through (thank you, digital age). But series aside, when I’m between books, I’m in one world and not ready to move into another. I’m a bit antsy in those few days, a bit disconsolate.

But there’s always another. I can turn to my bookshelf that holds just those I’ve not read yet. And it’s hard to resist the lure of an e-book, always available, just one click… (I’ve heard that Amazon patented that technology and can see why).

My own reading addiction ended with a mid-career change that took a second Master’s degree, and a steep drop in income. I became a professional editor when I realised that I cared more about the words in the documents than I did about the policy, or the politics.

When I have a fresh manuscript to get on with, I couldn’t be happier.

How do you read?

 

Anything is possible, Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.

Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.

Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.

Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.

While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …

Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.

The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’

If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99

First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.