‘Something deep’ – a few thoughts on reading, and on books about books

This was first written for what I thought at the time was World Book Day.

Turns out 23 April used to be World Book Day. It isn’t any more. It’s now earlier in the year. Forget when. The brain’s a bit foggy right now, for boring medical reasons I won’t trouble anyone with.

But here’s a little something I put together earlier, for the World Book Day that turns out to be Not World Book Day.

‘Something strange began to happen. I felt as if I was in on the inside of the book, a spotlight trained on something deep inside me.’

That comment is from author Picot Ayer and is quoted in David Lodge’s ‘Lives in Writing’ and it reminds me of what it was like discovering books as a kid.

Getting totally submerged, at a level of depth it was difficult to surface from. There were a couple of times at school, early in the afternoon, the teacher would notice I was missing & despatch a classmate to the library as I wouldn’t have heard the bell.

I seldom get that feeling these days. The ability to completely immerse yourself in something, to the exclusion of what is going on around you, is a gift of childhood we lose as we get older, if only for the necessary reason that as we get older there are too many things to juggle in the mind.

By the time you become a parent, it is – or should be, if you’re doing your duty  – almost impossible. If you’re fortunate and organised, you might be able to fence off some times for that kind of happy, oblivious focus.

lodge careyUntil the offspring comes roaring in to announce how many marbles they can get up the right nostril, or something similar.

For novels, too, I think it became difficult after formal study, for me anyway.

A stint studying law changed how I read,  and it took years to unlearn. It was a new, laborous and joyless way of tracing words across the page, reading interminable cases and distinguishing between how one distinguished judge distinguished between one set of facts and the legal principles as applied therein, and another set of facts.

Studying law, however fruitlessly, taught me some useful things, the most important of which was probably that I’d be a lousy lawyer – but it buggered up my ability to enjoy reading for years.

The other reason, also linked at least a bit to formal study, was that my time at Uni coincided with the high noon of  the unfortunate influence of literary theory on the modern novel.

I considered doing a double Politics/English major, but one – well, a few – looks at this literary theory nonsense was enough to make me wish for the death of a few more authors.

I find all too often now I’m reading books about books, when it comes to novels, rather than the novels themselves. I’ve had a recent bash at some of the canonical novelists I managed to miss during what for the sake of form we’ll call my education – Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Thomas Hardy.

Actually, in the case of Conrad, I picked up ‘The Secret Agent’ in the school library when I was in 7th form, and recall being a bit disappointed at the decided paucity of shoot’em up heroics or sexy undercover women spies.

Oh, and I did read Heart of Darkness at Uni. It was kind of compulsory, in the ’80s, if only because we all knew Apocalypse Now was kind of an updated version of the book, or meant to be, anyway.

Henry James seems to take a while to get to the point – always assuming there is a point to get to and we’ll set that issue to one side for now – and what I’ve read so far reminds me of Jane Austen: I can appreciate the deftness and cleverness of the writing but I have a mental foot tapping away going O for crying out loud GET ON WITH IT.

Hardy isn’t, so far, as depressing as I’d been led to believe but maybe that’s just me.

So – a couple of recent books on books I’ve read…

Both are, in their different ways, rather rude about the influence of literary theory on the novel. And quite right, too.

David Lodge points out that theory’s importance has been overestimated, mostly by theoreticians whose progress through academia depends on it.

Literary theory, he says, is

‘almost exclusively an academic pursuit, driven by professional as well as intellectual motivations. In a period when the university job market became increasingly competitive it provided an array of impressive meta-languages with which academics in the humanities could win their spurs and demonstrate their professional mastery. But to anyone outside the arena – the educated general reader, for instance – the excruciating effort of construing this jargon-heavy discourse far exceeded the illumination likely to be gleaned from it, so they stopped reading it, and nonspecialist media stopped reviewing it, which was bad both for academia and culture in general.’

I’ve added emphasis on ‘the educated general reader, for instance’ because it is this group of people – or rather, perhaps, the intelligent general reader (there are plenty such readers who have never darkened a university lecture hall’s door) – upon whom literature and in fact wider culture depends.

I’d go even further: one of the faults of a university education is it can, if one does not keep ones wits about one, lead one to take some ideas too seriously: ideas which should be greeted with derisive laughter and indeed often are by the aforementioned intelligent general reader. But I’m digressing a bit, again, in what I admit is a fairly rambling blog entry.

Carey’s memoir covers similar ground to Lodge: he traverses his landmark and controversial The intellectuals and the masses, which was published in the mid-1980s and annoyed all the people it should have.

Here was this English literary academic , trenchantly attacking English literature academia for snobbishly trying to pull up the intellectual bridge behind itself. Who let this pleb up to the Top Table? Was the general tenor of much of the response

Carey’s theme, which he revisits here in part, is that the rise of mass literacy caused intellectuals to respond in hostile fashion, resenting the ‘semi literate’ masses. This, he argues, led to all manner of unhealthy preoccupations such as the popularity of eugenics among such intellectuals as DH Lawrence HG Wells and WB Yeats. He suggests the move to make high culture more inaccessible was also part of this response.

‘They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated.’

The same drive for obscurity and inaccessibility occurred in other art such as painting and music and he backs this up with quotes from everyone from TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster, and Aldous Huxley.

He must have had a ball, going through that little lot. Rather him than me.

The response from his fellow English academics, or most of them, anyway, ways, he says “howls of fury” with  reviewers “beside themselves with rage”.

In other words, he’d hit a bullseye.

Both he and Lodge write about writers they like as well as those they don’t. I was drawn to them for different reasons – Lodge because he’s written some very enjoyable novels, and Carey because he wrote a damn good biography of William Golding, whose works I’ve only really discovered in the past few years.

Carey seems to like D H Lawrence: I don’t, but I like the general principle he elucidates here –

‘To believe Lawrence’s writing is dangerous is to assume that readers just suck it in uncritically, and it would be a strange reader who did that.  Literature functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else, inhabiting another body, thinking other thoughts.  Lawrence is able to bring that about because he writes with such passionate conviction. The force of his ego drenches you like a monsoon.’

And he is quietly amusing on the perils of book reviewing:

‘Reviewers can make enemies… A prominent man of letters refused to shake hands with me when we were introduced because he thought I had given a bad review to a book of his in revenge for a bad review he had given to one of mine. Assuring him I hadn’t read his review only made it worse.

Ah, well.

The David Lodge book is a collection of essays on writers and writing: it has, mostly, the kind of deft wit and humanity he’s brought to his own novels. John Carey’s book is more a memoir, mostly focused on his writing and on writers.

Both pay reading by that intelligent reader I mentioned above, and both can be dipped into and read a chapter or two at a time if you, like myself these days. find it seldom possible to immerse yourself into a book in the way described above by Iyer.