I've been reading a lot lately and as is probably only fitting, my thoughts have been rambling over into what reading is. What makes someone a reader? And when we are drifting or skimming through words and thinking about something else, is that still 'reading'? And how to describe that electrifying moment when what you are reading coheres so totally with your own experience it is as if the author felt the exact same thing as you but found a way to write it, making their words both a mirror and an avowal of what you know to be true?
Well, whatever you make of such moments, I experienced many of them this afternoon as I read and drank increasingly cold tea in Waterstone's. This bookstore has almost every book I would ever want to read. It has shelves (plural) of literary essays and a whole room full of fashion and photography books. I would have to book a container to get all of the titles I want to buy back to Australia so maybe I'll stick with Plan B for now, which involves ordering exactly one pot of tea and setting myself up all afternoon with Zadie Smith's collection of assorted essays 'Changing My Mind' for company.
Here's Vladimir Nabokov on the process of writing, explored in Smith's essay 'Rereading Barthes and Nabokov' (how could you not want to read an essay that makes these two literary giants play nice?) Nabokov broke the idea of writerly inspiration down into two halves, using two Russian words to articulate it. Firstly, there's vorstag (initial rapture) and according to Smith, it describes that moment in which the book as a whole is conceived. In Nabokov's words, it is "a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away and the non-ego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner- who is already dancing in the open. [It] has no conscious purpose in view [ ... in vorstag] the entire circle of time is conceived, which is another way of saying time ceases to exist.'
Don't you find? That elastic, intoxicating liminal phase when ideas rush into your mind and you become all-seeing and unseeing, surrounded entirely by what you must say and utterly on the cusp of saying it. It is the moment of knowing, the moment of anticipation before (and you're sure of this) you will possess- or pour out- all of the thoughts that teem and demand expression. But then comes vdokhnovenie (such Russian words!) or the 'cool, sustained period in which the actual writing gets done.' This second period is the period that writers inhabit after the first, the sitting in a chair and agonising, the drawing out, the polishing, abandoning, the restless and ongoing process of getting to the kernel of the thing itself and finding ways to unskein it from your mind. It pours out but it also trickles, it blocks, it streams in short bursts.
And then this wonderful reflection from Joan Didion, also from the same essay :
"In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions- with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating- but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space."
Of course. Because the ultimate compliment for a writer is to have convinced their reader- to have evoked emotion, to have cajoled into believing an argument or changing an opinion. A subtle power, this, and one Smith considers in detail in her essay. It's a funny relationship though, this one between a reader and a writer because isn't there also a generosity in the sharedness between the two parties? That one shares thoughts- however egotistical the impulse- and the other enjoys them, takes them up in their own mind. A momentary unity of thought facilitated by the page- however fragmented or different those mutual interpretations of meaning. And if, through language and skill, you take a reader someplace, or as a reader are taken someplace, then isn't that the pleasure of reading, of writing? The making sense, or the successful moment at which communication is efficacious. Well.
And finally for now, Smith's own lovely conclusion to her essay which must be included in my thesis somewhere, if only for the light-handed way she negotiates the tension between reader and writer: 'nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end, I find myself placing a cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer, that discrete struggle to reveal an individual's experience of the world through the unstable medium of language. Not a refusal of meaning then, but a quest for it.'
Couldn't have said it better myself if I tried.