I'm off the New York to cover the superb PEN World Voices festival, and will do my level best to get posts up in something approaching real time, although we all know what they say about the road to hell. And if you're a New York reader, I urge you to attend Marisa Silver's reading on Monday at McNally Jackson, where I will have the great pleasure of introducing her. (The website says we will be "in conversation" which is sorta news to me, but it's not like we don't have plenty to talk about.)
In the meantime, I would like to direct your attention to Sven Birkerts' American Scholar essay, "Reading in a Digital Age." It has been wdely linked elsewhere, and I certainly have my differences with his take on things. But two sections having less to do with his central point struck me and I want to highlight them here. First, he wrote:
HAVING JUST THE OTHER DAY FINISHED Netherland, I can testify about the residue a novel leaves, not in terms of culture so much as specific personal resonance. Effects and impacts change constantly, and there’s no telling what, if anything, I will find myself preserving a year from now. But even now, with the scenes and characters still available to ready recall, I can see how certain things start to fade and others leave their mark. The process of this tells on me as a reader, no question. With O’Neill’s novel—and for me this is almost always true with fiction—the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.
What—I ask it again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact; that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it. Also, there are different kinds of memory access. You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely. And possibly something similar explains Ortega’s “culture is what remains” aphorism.
In a lifetime of reading, which maps closely to a lifetime of forgetting, we store impressions willy-nilly, according to private systems of distribution, keeping factual information on one plane; acquired psychological insight (how humans act when jealous, what romantic compulsion feels like) on another; ideas on a third, and so on. I believe that I know a great deal without knowing what I know. And that, further, insights from one source join with those from another. I may be, unbeknownst to myself, quite a student of human nature based on my reading. But I no longer know in every case that my insights are from reading. The source may fade as the sensation remains.
When I read this, I was overjoyed - for years I have had the same, shameful secret: that I often cannot recall many of the details of what I have read. I imagined this had to be some defect, the coarsening of a once-fine mind. But, like Birkerts, I can always summon back the sensation, that tonal memory of the work. And if that's good enough for a reader and thinker of his caliber - and, for all our differences, his seriousness and thoughtfulness are inarguable - it's good enough for me.
In the same essay, he writes of Netherland:
WHEN READING Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I am less caught in the action—there is not that much of it—than the tonality. I have the familiar, necessary sense of being privy to the thoughts (and rhythmic inner workings) of Hans, the narrator, and I am interested in him. Though to be accurate I don’t know that it’s as much Hans himself that I am drawn to as the feeling of eavesdropping on another consciousness. All aspects of this compel me, his thoughts and observations, the unexpected detours his memories provide, his efforts to engage in his own feeling-life. I am flickeringly aware as I read that he is being written, and sometimes there is a swerve into literary self-consciousness. But this doesn’t disturb me, doesn’t break the fourth wall: I am perfectly content to see these shifts as the product of the author’s own efforts, which suggests that I tend to view the author as on a continuum with his characters, their extension. It is the proximity to and belief in the other consciousness that matters, more than its source or location. Sometimes everything else seems a contrivance that makes this one connection possible. It is what I have always mainly read for.
I loved this passage because, again, it echoed my own experience, and it helped me articulate something I have struggled to convey to those who have criticized the novel for its lack of incident, of propulsion. And I also find it immensely reassuring as I have finally reached the 100-page mark of my second novel, a book that owes much in its design and intention to O'Neill (and Banville) and other eavesdroppers. As I sacrifice some of the safety and comfort of the kind of narrative propulsion that drove Harry, Revised, I find passages like this one inspiring and validating.
Off to New York I go. Hope to see some of my East Coast readers around PEN and at McNally Jackson. And I will see my L.A. friends at the Peter Carey event on Wednesday.