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.