Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing on, and in, books.

Odd how the casual and conventionally polite showing of interest in my reading matter a couple of posts ago, along the lines of 'let us know what you think of it', rather engendered a sense of anxiety.  I always feel myself very ill-equipped to comment on books in any capacity of review or criticism.

Then I saw this, over at Dave's, which made me smile plenty, and in turn led me to this, at  John's blog Open Reading, where I'd not been before, and between the two of them, with irony and thoughtful common sense they made me feel much better, John's defence of the value of a reader response was heartening. 

My lack of confidence in the value of my own particular readerly response has many causes, most of them  to do with a tedious and inverted narcissism: fear of being exposed as stupid and undiscerning I suppose, or not having anything new to say, so what's the point? - running out of time, space and others' tolerance; that I won't be able to marshal my thoughts intelligently and succinctly; indecision and uncertainty about what I really do think  (and here reading about Montaigne has been very helpful; perhaps it really is acceptable sometimes to shrug and say, 'but I don't know', or to change one's mind, or contradict oneself, though indeed it got him into trouble ...)  

Then there is the danger that a reader response might degenerate into a defensively philistine 'Well I like it anyway, and I know what I like!', which for some reason is more contemptible than an equally unjustified 'What a load of rubbish!' or similar, which automatically seems to presuppose a strong-minded and incisive intelligence ... Not for nothing has the word 'criticism' come to be synonymous with negativity and disparagement. 

Yet it is good to explore why we like what we like, or not, and doesn't preclude allowing for different tastes; discrimination, applauding excellence and being honest about its opposite, is desirable and necessary.  It's a joy to be led in the direction of something new and perhaps better than what we already know, to read or listen to a good critic illuminating or explaining something previously unclear and incomprehensible, and occasionally, indeed, it's satisfying to hear something being carefully demolished, if not cruelly ripped apart.

On reflection, in fact, I'm not actually too averse to giving my own reader responses.  I love chatting about books in e-mails, where I suppose I feel less that I'm setting myself up, or that I'm just conversing one-to-one with a interested and often like-minded friend, with whom impressions are not necessarily taken to be opinions.  Even here though, I observe there are some 30 posts tagged with the label 'books', and some of them do contain  quite detailed responses to things I've been reading.

So I think perhaps I'll try to get over myself and write the odd review, or reader response anyway, but I'll take a leaf out of John's book on the matter of  'précis and pith'; the danger of going on at too much inconsequential length and exhausting my own time and your patience is as much of a problem as not having enough to say. 

Says she.  And proceeds to head off at another tangent.  Probably at length. Ah me.

I've nearly finished the Sarah Bakewell Montaigne biography, and I realise that one of the problems I have about opining on books is that I need to let a certain time lapse before my impressions of them settle.  Often a book seems quite great and I've been quite carried along with it but then a short while later I realise I have very little impression of it at all, or quite a negative one.  Sometimes, I've been initially enthusiastic but ended by feeling perplexed, nonplussed, and assumed a failure of understanding or appreciation in myself, but after time have come to the conclusion that no, it wasn't me, the book just fell apart ('Miss Smilla' comes to mind).  At other times, the positive impression remains, but it still seems to require an interval for the shape and the prominent features of the text to become clear.  However, by this time the event of reading it is passed, and the important details have slipped away.

Probably this can't really be helped.  I am simply a bear of rather slow and ponderous brain who just doesn't process stuff very quickly.  What would help though would be to take notes, which I could review later.  This came up at Open Reading, and elsewhere, people saying that they have to read with a pencil in hand, and make notes in margins as they go along.  It's caused me to think about this aspect of the culture of reading.  Quite simply, I find marking in books a very difficult thing to bring myself to do.

I don't remember having it too forcibly instilled into me, but I think that I must come from a background where, while book use, the presence of books, was of the greatest importance, book ownership wasn't.  I come from a large family, we had books, they occupied our rooms, but then we often swapped rooms, the books often stayed where they were, and they occupied halls and landings and attics and living rooms too.  They were passed on, handed round, lent and borrowed, we weren't really too particular whose they were, and we weren't ever so precious about them, but to scribble in them spoiled them for the next user.  Then we went to the library every week too, a good, bright, clean small town library, lovely hardback books with clear plastic covers, and you certainly didn't write in library books. I went to a small private girls' secondary school; it may have been paying but economy was paramount, some of our text books were ancient, we did scribble in them, but we knew it was a crime.  When I went on to university, and before when I studied foreign languages, the usefulness of marginal notes became clear, but it was never a habit I took to easily, and I never learned the necessary conciseness to do it very effectively .  

I wish I could break out of this constraint; there is no good reason why carefully made personal notes and observations, underlinings and other markings, constitute any form of vandalism.  I sometimes buy very old used copies from Amazon which have other people's writing in them and I don't mind; the heavily annotated copy of Rilke's Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge that I read recently rather pleased me, since the anonymous American who was presumably studying it formally seemed to be struggling with it worse than I was, I felt I had a companion and wasn't so alone! I'm sure that personalising and pouring oneself into the fabric of a book in this way must make the relationship you have with it much closer and more intense, which I suppose comes back to ownership again.  I don't know, is it better to have a looser, more hands-off bond with your reading matter, or to get up-close and personal?  I'd be interested to know how others see this.

Perhaps I should just try to keep a notebook and pencil to hand, and perhaps try to learn to mark in the book sparingly.  I'll give it a try.


Dale said...

One of the many exciting potentialities of e-books, ranking right up there with being able to search the text efficiently, is the opportunity to annotate, and share annotations, without spoiling the book or forcing your notes on anyone else's attention. Shared reading could become a lovely form of intimacy.

Bee said...

I can't bring myself to write in books, either. When I used to read a lot of academic texts,I would write notes or quotations that I wanted to remember on scraps of paper and file them like bookmarks.

There is so much here to respond to . . . but I was particularly struck by your musings on how our thoughts about books can change. I don't mean to plug Goodreads again, but I've noticed, too, that books settle differently; some for the better and some for the worse; and I often want to go back and alter my ratings.

I've been reading a book about women's writing between the wars called A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beaumain. She has some interesting things to say about reader's responses.

Last thing: I like your new header and the spring green.

the polish chick said...

my, that dave is quite the cynic. then again, most of his comments fit university level english papers. perhaps because i was older when i went back to school, i could easily smirk at the "expertise" on a topic which, at most, was gleaned from very perfunctory reading and analysis. oh youth!

i also have trouble writing in books. i think being raised in communist-era scarcity by post-war-era scarcity parents might have had something to do with it. or it's the love of words my family has always had.

and finally, maybe because i am a fast reader, i often zoom through a book, fleeting emotional and intellectual responses zipping by the window, scarcely able to make a lasting impression...oh to have a slow and ponderous brain. alas, i have a fast and shallow brain and an even quicker mouth, more's the pity. quite often i have very little recollection of what i have read. then again, it means i can enjoy the same book twice, or thrice!

Zhoen said...

Too much early training, and usually having library books, means it is very difficult for me to write in them. Sticky note bookmarks, if necessary. Even highlighting in textbooks was not natural for me.

But when I read fiction, I don't want to read it to write a report about it. For me, that spoils it. If I love it, I will read it again, and again. If I merely enjoy the read, that seems sufficient for letting others know what it was about, and suggest who else might also like it. If I threw it against the wall before finishing it, that also seems sufficient for expressing my estimation. Or if a book just doesn't grab me, it may well be a fine book, but not one I want living inside my head. In short, I'd make a terrible book critic, and I'm fine with that.

Plutarch said...

Someone recently published an antholgy of annotations, most of them by distinguished people. The book seemed when I read about it to legitimise the habit. I always tend to do it in pencil, but am less reluctant than I used to be. I have done a certain amount of reviewing of the years and never felt happy about it. The synopsis of some kind is of course important, but there are tricks, like picking a quote from the middle of the book to suggest that you had read every word, which I sometimes adopted and hated myself for. How many professional reviewers read a book (other than perhaps one of fiction) from beginning to end?

I share your views about commenting on other people's blogs, but I have come to the conclusion that it is better to comment and blush than never to comment at all. Hence this.

Medimpsi, as they say in the language of WV, to you and all your readers.

Barrett Bonden said...

So, Lucy l’écrivain, not so much Jekyll and Hyde, more George Eliot and Little Miss Muffet. The Breton Janus.

We may have Lucy writing about ancient French churches, her relationship with Mol, a craftman’s view of grouting, a piece of vers libre or a synoptic account of the déchetterie (the dump). In which case we can expect objectivity, a historical sweep, a wide yet not suffocating vocabulary, a deceptively conversational style, evidence of both formal and informal education, wit, sympathy, well-developed powers of observation, intellectual curiosity, exploitation of the role of the foreigner in another country and (where appropriate) evidence of skills in cooking, managing a household, horticulture and getting the best out of landscapes. The usual post-Renaissance list.

Step forward Miss Muffet. Here we get tremulous introspection, apology, reference to non-existent faults, an inexplicable desire to cross over to the other (shaded) side of the road. Lucy Minimus. The Lucy for whom this hymn was written:

Here a little child I stand,
Heaving up my either hand,
Cold as paddocks though they be

There’s no reason why these two characters should not inhabit one cranium, what’s odd is, depending on which has popped out of the weather-clock, there’s no simultaneous allusion to the other. Not that I’m suggesting changes. Two Lucys for the price of one: I’ll go for that.

You’re right. It’s far more fun inhabiting someone else’s space than laying down yet another layer of carpet in one’s own.

Anne said...

Although I read every day, I am slow and most of what I read I read out loud to Jerry. I get interested then, and I read ahead, which causes me to read the same thing twice. Sometimes that can be enlightening; I discover how much I missed the first time.

I spent so much of my life studying science and painting that I feel unqualified to criticize literature. But I hate reading books other people have written a lot of stuff in. I particularly hate underlining. It's distracting, and I find myself wondering, why underline THAT?

I tend to read things I like over and over, and there is many a classic I have been unable to finish.

Having said all that, perhaps soon I'll write a post about books and reading.

Rouchswalwe said...

Lucy, I came to read this post a third time and finally feel ready to jot down some thoughts in the comment box. Reading is such a solitary activity in a way. During the read, I'll find myself asking the author in my head, "now why did you write that?" or some other question. Having a third person in the mix, a previous reader who has underlined words and annotated in the margins, turns the whole reading experience into one even more conversational. Can be fun given the reading material. Over the years, I find I prefer to put a light checkmark at the end of a line or paragraph I would like to be able to refer to in future, when I pick up the book again. It doesn't point out exactly what I'm after, and I quite like testing myself this way, to see if I can discover later what exactly it was that I was checkmarking and why. And should I decide to sell it back to the used bookstore, it doesn't mar the reading experience, like highlighting and underlining seem to do, for the next reader.

Going one step further, and relaying thoughts in a review, adds to the conversation. Like you say, finding the balance, saying neither too little or too much, about what you've just read, is key. Like with any good conversation. It's all part of turning something that can be quite solitary into something more communal.

Lucy said...

Thanks friends. The consensus seems to be against too much writing in books, and I suppose on the whole I prefer not to be possibly irritated by other peoples ruminations around the text, or indeed my own, as I might be on coming back to a book later. Light pencil marking might be OK! Though I rather enjoyed inheriting my sister Az's school Revised Standard Bible with such comments as 'Isaiah was a woman hater!' written in the margins...

Dale - is that right? I know it was a reservation some people had a t first about the Kindle, that one couldn't readily annotate it, but that kind of optional function does sound interesting. I reckon by next Christmas I might have overcome my conservatism and yielded to my curiosity about the Kindle.

Bee - I do actually quite like reading other people's responses on Goodreads, and they're such a mix that it feels as though there is room for all kinds of responses. I suppose the problem is just one of priorities, which is one reason I shy off reviewing here; reading time is squeezed as it is, one way and another, and I wonder if I wouldn't be better reading something else rather than trying laboriously to write up what I've read. I am painfully conscious of time's winged chariot and the pile of books to one side, clamouring and cheeping to be read... here I go again! The change of colour scheme for the blog was partly in response to your remark about the grey, I thought I should do something more springlike!

Polish Chick - Yeah, but it's the kind of cynicism that's liberating and comforting, rather than discouraging, I find. Funnily enough, having said that I am slow and ponderous in forming and expressing ideas, I also can read quite fast, especially fiction, where I find the narrative can carry me along with speed, and often if I come back to the book I can be quite surprised at how much I apparently missed, or don't remember. Re-reading is another question, of course. Again, sometimes it feels like I'm wasting my time, which I'd be better using to read one of the million and one seminal and unmissable things I haven't read yet, though I often long for the familiar company of something I know I love.

Z - yes I know, and there are enough people opining and reviewing and responding all over the place, I don't need to feel obliged to add my tuppenceworth, but on the other hand I do value and appreciate the recommendations and views on books that I get from friends and others on-line, it's really my main source of information and inspiration about reading matter, especially reading mainly in English but living in France, so bookshops and libraries and even like-minded English reading friends are not readily available as sources of inspiration, so I do enjoy the to and fro that I find here. Plenty of novels get passed on and handed round among people I know, but while I still want to read fiction for pleasure, but I also appreciate being led in slightly more challenging directions too.

Lucy said...

(Sorry, having to do this in two parts as Bogger has decided to impose a character limit...)

Plutarch - did you read Dave's post? In fact you really are my best book recommender of all, and your posts frequently contain interesting responses to things you're reading or have read. Please continue commenting here in any way shape or form you will!

BB - Flatteur! You do make me laugh. But don't forget I am she who has been in danger of liking Carl Orff and Conan the Barbarian, of equating Bessie Smith and Mahler with pickled onions and other such instances of low taste and zero discrimination. So my 'but what do I know?' defensiveness has found a welcome resonance with Montaigne... I do so love that word 'paddock' for a frog. One of Macbeth's witches familiars too, I seem to recall.

Anne - I look forward to that post. I imagine reading ahead then reading aloud is quite a good way to go into things. The question of what one has studied and hence feels qualified to speak on is one that I didn't go into, but I'm not sure, especially with arts subjects, that the sense that one *should* know about them as being one's specialism, isn't sometimes more constraining than it is helpful...

R - thanks for taking so much time and thought! I like the sound of that optional sharing of notes and response that Dale describes with the Kindle. The involvement of a previous reader can be interesting or illuminating, or can be an irritant. I think I'm on agreement that underlining is possibly more annoying, and highlighting I find aesthetically very unpleasant...

HKatz said...

It's a joy to be led in the direction of something new and perhaps better than what we already know, to read or listen to a good critic illuminating or explaining something previously unclear and incomprehensible, and occasionally, indeed, it's satisfying to hear something being carefully demolished, if not cruelly ripped apart.

Yes, this!

Even if many people are out there opining on books and everything else, I would welcome your particular thoughts on what you read as you seem to take care here with what you write, writing well and with honesty and clarity.

Nimble said...

As Zhoen mentioned, sticky notes are excellent for temporary annotation. I like them when getting ready for a book group discussion. I love getting reading recommendations from others. It's always interesting even if their enthusiasms don't turn out to be mine.