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Of books and reading and timey-wimey stuff – pt 2


Fiction begs the question of itself, as does reading. The recent debates about the future of reading and so on seem to have thrown us back to some zero-point where we could begin to consider what reading might be, and therefore who the reader is and what she might be doing when she reads. And of course, given their interdependence, the same thing might be wondered about the writer. All of a sudden we have to question where we are when we read and what we are doing when we write. What is obvious in these debates and forums on reading is how little we seem to have thought about what reading is.

For example, why are narratives not just a series of events? Why isn’t that just what we have? Why isn’t the world composed of such narratives?

You tell stories that are not true, said Michael Wood, because the stories that are true aren’t enough. In other words – and we obviously need a lot of other words in order to find out what the true stories aren’t telling us – perhaps we are in an intermediate space when we read, a transitional space and our use of reading is a way of haunting that space, of occupying our own interior state in a way that also impinges on the interior states of others across time and space. As Adam Phillips remarks in an extended interview, ‘I look into the book and the book looks into me’.

Books don’t have any agency in the way that the reader does, but books have the capacity to change each of us differently because each book is read differently and can only be read differently, and no-one owns a master narrative. The transitional space of reading – which is in-between a whole lot of things not just covers – is transitional because it allows a kind of structural change to happen, where we can be surprised by what we haven’t thought, or by what we have thought but couldn’t look at or understand. In fact we may well also use reading to avoid that space as much as navigate it. And if we avoid it – as I do when I read certain kinds of fiction that I call ‘bathtub-books’ – we prevent the possibility of transformation, preferring instead a kind of rigid homeostasis, a narcissistic identification with an idea of what we think we’ll find in the book.

It’s not hard to come up with a million ideas of what fiction might look like in the near future, a future supposedly flagged by the Kindle and the iPad. It would be a kind of cyber–fiction perhaps, like Blade Runner, but with reading. What if the novel I wrote were written in fragments and each download was compiled differently so that that there was no definitive edition? What if fifty percent of the novel was a console game, and each choice you made in the game closed off other choices irrevocably? And when the game was completed, you were able to then download the remainder of the novel as text; a text based on the choices you made in the game? What if you downloaded a novel, concerned say with the complicated life of two blogger-lovers and so on, and then a year later were electronically delivered a different edition with the claim that the first edition you bought was false and that the true story was contained in the new download? And what if this happened every year for an indeterminate period?

The first thing that strikes you when you start using a Kindle is: readers didn’t design it. It was obviously designed by people who think reading is about picking up a book-object and turning pages. Basically, the technology for delivering books is still crap, it’s just finally moved into the ‘useable’ stage. At last, I can download a large text document and read it on a handheld device. It’s hardly Gutenberg’s Press all over again. Similarly, with the iPad, what Apple thinks we should do with it, is very different to what it might be possible to do with it.

Multimedia devices like the iPad and the Kindle are designed as platforms for the delivery of products for us to buy. Nothing else. Apple and Amazon have very limited and rigid ideas on how their technology should be used and who should use them. The potential of these portable technologies is always limited by the corporation’s desires, and the corporation desires that we become Apple- or Amazon-dependent.

Reading, in the limited sense of reading a book, which is how we are using it here, is intensely private and untraceable. Reading a Kindle is not, as the reader is in many ways dependent on Amazon’ s servers. As Guy Rundle pointed out a couple of Overlands ago, as far as governments are concerned – and corporations too we might add – the citizen has become ‘a subject whose inner condition becomes a matter for political action’.

For John Howard, that meant giving us all an ideological makeover and blurring the borderline of what a citizen could be subjected too, as in the case of Vivian Solon. For Kevin Rudd it means a government bereft of any kind of social vision engaging in an endless, annoying and intrusive tinkering and stuffing around with bureaucratic methodologies and turning them into grandiose national projects – home insulation, compulsory income management, internet filtering – all of which are incredibly cumbersome and strange and none of which work. But for both Howard and Rudd there has been a fixation on what we are allowed to do, on what we could be thinking, on what they don’t know about us, on getting inside each and every household. We could be up to anything – accessing strange websites, reading unusual books, having unplaceable and unnameable experiences.

And this is something of the crux of the matter for the reader. Not how many wacky narrative structures we can come up with, but where we are when we read; who we become and why and how we become; and whether we are transformed by reading’s reciprocity, by an exposure to the difference of difference and the inhabiting of the experience of the other in our imagination.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. The forthcoming OL has a piece by Andrew Mccann that touches on similar themes in relation to Roberto Bolano, a writer who, Mccann contents, opens up the possibility of the novel once more coming to matter.
    (Recaptcha: uprising logjam. Indeed.)

  2. Ok, ta Jeff. I’m still somewhat ambiguous Bolano about myself, so I will be very interested in McCann’s essay.

  3. whoops. An intriguing double-slip, but I intended to write “I’m still somewhat ambivalent about Bolano myself.”

  4. Greetings Stephen and readers of the sublime.

    I’m fairly Bolano about myself too.

    I read to escape upwards from this Satan-ridden earth, to go beyond the planetary spheres with their disastrous influences and into the divine empyrean. But sometimes grace, however strongly mediated may it be, fails me and my attention is diverted to the forbidden.

    Torn between two doctrines, reading for me, unlike the venerable Thomas Browne, can be a space of carnage.

  5. Interesting thoughts – control of the inner space. We’re so bombarded with picture/video/commercial images, it’s hard to know if we’re even capable of creating a free inner space from what we read.

    For some reason this post has made me nostalgic for something I haven’t even lost … yet. What if I snuggled into bed with an old paperback and a well-protected candle or two? What if I awoke with my cheek against the page and hadn’t been irradiated all night? What if I took that old book to the beach and didn’t need a battery of any kind to enjoy it. What if I kept that old paperback even though the cover was torn because it had done the rounds of all my friends, including my inner buddies, or used to belong to my mother… But more to the point: what if I couldn’t? Would I still go where that novel wants to take me?

    It also makes me think of this, from ‘Loving the Lizard':
    “I don’t jump out of my skin. I jump in, with a jolt, frightened back from wherever the sliver of words had taken me. Do our bodies miss us when we’re gone? Is that why they ache, cramp, pound? Trying to hold on?”

      • “ambiguous bolano” may now enter my own lexicon, kind of like my personal “Meaning of Liff” (Adams and Lloyd), as in:
        “ambiguous bolano”(vb) The feeling one gets when one makes a seemingly innocuous comment in conversation, only to have others present fall silent, cough slightly and look at their shoes.

    • Hi Clare
      it’s like a metaphor for the modern age isn’t it? being nostalgic for things we’re not sure if we’ve lost.
      The shape/materiality of the book matters, but it its impact on interior space that is what counts I think. That’s where reading happens, and that space can be quite profound.
      Receiving a Kindle, my first question of it, was ‘how much electric power do you consume?'(That’s aside from its carbon footprint, which is no doubt hideous). I live on solar power, so every amp is precious. From that perspective, a book that needs to be charged up every few days is ludicrous. My paperbacks and hardbacks, do not need re-charging, and if I get fed up with them I can recycle or even compost them.
      I read mostly at night, and by candlelight. Easier on the eyes.
      And the Kindle consumes .85 of an amp. Not to be sneezed at.

      • yes … and yet (in true Kenny Everett style) don’t objects have power and influence. Can we be ‘just anywhere’? If I read a paper novel in a series of beanbag adventures in the forest, will I have the same inner experience as the same novel electronic (or paper) form devoured in snatched fragments during florescent city lunch-breaks? Maybe. I do think inner space is impacted by outer space (hahaha danger, Will Robinson) … and yet (thanks KE) a good novel, in whatever form, can disappear a person quite oblivious. Hmm maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all ambiguous bolano.

        Nevertheless, I think ‘novel’ is a form and ‘things other than novel’ are other things – perfectly valid, welcome, interesting and potential: but other.

        Merry candlelight to you, Stephen, and thanks for the chance to wax nostalgic about the beloved paperback.

        • where’s my proofreader? not twittering inappropriate observations in her time off, I hope …

  6. Stephen,
    I’d like to know more about what makes a good read, and a good reader. You seem to be giving agency/responsibility to both — perhaps not surprising, as if often takes two to tango.

    So you want readers to enter a space of inhabiting (with) the other in our imagination.
    And you want novels/writers(?) to be more than ‘bathtub books’ (and preferably not, it seems, something so narrowly or over-designed like a mass produced standardised technology — eg, Kindle — which presumes a narrow range of purposes).

    I can’t imagine you just think its up to people becoming a better reader, no matter the material, because then you’d instantly stop being a writer (since you could be a better reader with anything you could get your eyes on). And you don’t seem to be saying its solely about writing a better novel, as that would imply any old reading, or generic reading, would all be as equally effective/transitional.

    So again, what makes a good read, and a good reader, for you?

  7. Luke: I think bathtub books are fine. I just don’t think its wise to spend all day in the bath. You start to look weird. Any book can be a bathtub book. Its not a judgment on any book or genre, but a judgment on my mind. William Gibson would be a bathtub writer to me, but not to many others. I read him and I can’t be bothered with engaging with what he is saying on any ostensible level. I just read for the special effects.
    Its narcissistic. Just as hollywood films are mostly invitations to narcissism, to an ethic of personal enjoyment, not of public engagement – and I include in that imaginative engagement. I have just been reading McGowan’s ‘The end of dissatisfaction’ in which he speaks of a profound shift which he thinks has happened from public engagement to private enjoyment/jouissance. He doesn’t speculate why, at least not yet, but I think that imaginative reading and writing can combat that. If we’re not attempting to imaginatively enter the world of the other, then what are we doing? What else is there to do?

  8. “attempting to imaginatively enter the world of the other”… okay, this makes sense, given this and also the other blog posts. (The statement itself is an invitation to imagine what the world of the other is, and how I could enter into it, and what imaginations and modes this might take!)

    But are you wanting both ways… bathtub books and films are fine… but then you ask what else there is, besides imaginative writing and reading, to do.

    Why not just come out with it, and say you are for imaginative reading and writing (one or the other, or when both happen in concert all the better), and anything else is not worth our while as humans. anything else sucks. I bet you’d also say (at least from reading you posts over last few months) that anything else either creates, complies with, or gets co-opted into the power centres with ultimately have no imagination and create the other as marginal.

    And you don’t want to judge any particular genre or books as particularly bathtub-like, and yet you don’t mind doing this to films (‘Hollywood films…’). Spoken like a true writer, rather than film maker! ;-)

  9. Hi there Luke:
    Ok, first part..tick. Yes I’m just speaking about ‘imaginatively’ entering the world of the other.
    What is not worth our while as humans is anything other than this. That is, if we are not entering into some kind of care or being cared for then what are we doing? Imaginative reading and writing is one way of entering into this state of being.
    Hollywood films are weird things because there still isn’t anything that reaches so many people in terms of mass entertainment. I saw Ironman 2 last week. It was mildly sinister militaristic crap, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, because my narcissistic bits got a free outing. As opposed to the times when they get free outings and I’m not aware of it. I said that Hollywood films are ‘mostly’ an invitation to narcissism. They are other things besides, as are bathtub books.

    • No, no. Giving our narcissistic bits an outing is what happens to everyone in bits and pieces, and is reasonably normal, unless you’re a saint. Its a problem when that’s all we do, or when the discourses of identity tell us that that’s what identity is for, or that’s what the world is for, or that’s how we should relate to others, or how we should think of the natural world, or how we should think of our children, or our lovers, or even strangers.

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