Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.

6 thoughts on “Desultory reading

  1. Rick Wadholm Jr

    Read…read…read…that’s what I say. You may well enjoy The Kite Runner (I couldn’t get past about midway and had to be done…just too much…but I LOVED the style and culture of the book). Hope you enjoy it!

  2. becky

    Marc, excellent post! I can relate to nearly all of what you said — except I wasn’t able to finish 100 Years. (I just couldn’t do it!)

    I read your post aloud to Jerry, and he also loved what you had to say here. Thanks.

  3. Marc

    Becky: I finished it out of sheer will-power. That makes it sound worse than it was–it wasn’t a terrible read, but it was tough to keep going. I think the combination of having started once previously and then managing to get 300 pages in before realizing it was going nowhere was enough to keep me going. I had too much invested.

    But that’s another thing I should probably change about my reading habits: worrying about how much I’ve invested.

  4. Andrew

    Interesting post. We’ve discussed this before — the need for a big pay-off or resolution. You’re an unrepentant romantic, Marc! Books like ‘White Noise’ for example, or ‘On the Road’, or any stories by Raymond Carver don’t have these type of resolutions – they leave the reader hanging, and personally I think they’re the better for it. If we’re talking about books that deal with the ‘human condition’ then there is some merit in reflecting the fact that life can be ‘one damn thing after another’ that doesn’t hold together in a nice sequential narrative that culminates in some pay-off, no?

  5. Marc

    I don’t *need* a payoff, though I do like them. Sometimes being left hanging is good; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t recall Godric having any sort of payoff, but it was so well written that it worked and I loved it. I don’t feel the same way about 100 Years. In this case, I hoped for a payoff because the middle of the book wasn’t connecting with me in any other way.

    Maybe I see fiction more as an escape and don’t want to read about life as it is, since I live that life.

    But my concern isn’t really payoffs. It’s more what kind of books I enjoy (I can’t force myself to enjoy something) and how I choose them. Obligation or recommendation, it seems, isn’t always the best way.

  6. Toni

    Art and appreciation, I believe, are within us, rather than in the pieces themselves. With many artforms you have to be trained to appreciate and enjoy them, rather like certain foods, and your brain has to reinterpret reality to believe you are enjoying it. Does Damien Hurst even create art? In the mind of those who purchase his work he does. Is William Shakespeare a great playright? Many who have invested hours in studying his work seem to think so. But what about those who see pickled sheep as trivial or perverse, and WS as just another guy with a quill?

    Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and so is the enjoyment of writing.

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