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Reading habits, part III

By Anselm Berrigan

This post (one resists the temptation to begin “This post-up” and imagine the electronic void one writes into playing zone defense) is part III because I think the fabulous set of comments to my previous post constitutes “Reading habits, part II”, with Gloria Frym’s lecture transcription especially taking care (care!) of any number of concerns and pleasures I might have desire to account for in some fashion.

One thing I’ve noticed across the last year, for my part, is an ability to read novels re-emerging from the murky depths of my imagination. I really felt for years that I had neither the desire nor the specific head space for reading most novels other than an occasional genre item or something by a friend, in which case my interest in the person would overcome the aforementioned lacks.  On one line, the reason I got back into novels after a good sixteen years of generally banishing them from sight is a by-product of a writing exercise. I began to feel as if my mind’s ability to form a sentence had eroded last year, leaving me with a limited set of choices to draw from, and I took it upon myself to write a short list of sentences each night over a stretch of time in order to practice (not games…..practice) variations. I got caught up in the routine and, in a nod to the late painter George Schneeman, gave myself the numerical goal of writing one thousand discrete sentences (when George got interested in a thing he was doing he’d make a hundred or pick a larger number).

Somewhere along the way I picked up a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and found myself plowing through it. I’d read any number of history books in recent years – in fact, that point of reading was partially a consequence of hosting a weekly reading series at the Poetry Project for four years and finding that I had to read two books of poems per week on average in order to get the intros right; reading books on history and politics inside and outside the U.S. took over as my non-job related reading  (a side note: though it only goes up through 2008, I’d recommend Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to anyone looking for a primer on our involvement in that region over the past decade; and I’m interested in hearing other suggestions on that and related subjects). Nonetheless, something felt different and I found myself looking around for literary novels I’d missed or skipped over. That led into Fahrenheit 451, which hooked me into Frankenstein, which sent me over to Sentimental Education, which shuffled me into Kindred followed by Rings of Saturn and that train hasn’t stopped since.

Now, I should add that I mostly read novels in high school and college. Hardly any poetry, at least until my last couple of terms. In fact, when I finally figured out how to finish school and found myself in San Francisco I felt this tremendous anxiety over how little poetry I’d read (not to mention the creeping sub-awareness that my ability to pay attention while I read needed serious work). This was in stark contrast to the constant palpable excitement I experienced taking on the art itself as a practice and perceptual filter. But I literally talked  myself out of that anxiety by staring at a big Collected Robert Creeley (the initial ’46-’76 version) and deciding something to the effect of “if this is that good it’ll work whether I read it now or thirty years from now”. Somehow, that basic feeling – a shifting of pressure, perhaps, away from mind and onto the work – lifted the anxiety about my own lack of knowledge and gave me the room to start attending to a weakness so as to convert it into something useful. I began reading Creeley that night (the pages got lighter), and allowed myself the pleasure of re-initiating my education. But I dropped novels for a good long time, a fact that I didn’t notice for a few years, then noticed and felt it sensible for several more years, and eventually started to wonder about.

So there’s some sense in here that writing sentences in order to be a better writer of sentences has had the unanticipated effect of re-opening my ability to take on the reading of novels. That’s the practical take, at any rate, and I suspect it’s true. While I can connect with Gloria’s take on the pleasures of sinking into a single author over an extended period of time, I’m finding this other form of pleasure in moving from author to author and feeling a kind of wild kindness that is not unlike suddenly meeting a slew of interesting persons after a period of relative isolation. The excitement of every space being fresh, idiosyncratic, full of determinations in transit, and coinciding with a sense on my part of relief that this mode of consciousness is available to me again. Writing this down is also making me see the parallel between the Creeley moment and this recent barrier removal with novels, and while I may not need to think about it for a thousand years, a few hundred could do.

There were two little reading items I thought to mention today, and neither has come up yet, so here they are: a friend of mine was on the subway recently reading a book of poems by a contemporary poet. Subway crowded, book close to the face of a seated passenger, friend standing. He feels a tap on the book, lowers it, and this person says, as the train begins to pull into a station, “the problem with that poet is she wanted to revive the lyric and did it from completely the wrong angle,” then gets up and gets off the train. Second thing: W. G. Sebald’s intro to Robert Walser’s The Tanners contains the following sentence on Walser’s work in general: “……(his) prose has a tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, things and events of which it spoke.” I love this moment. Sebald’s quasi-baffled admiration for Walser’s writing – he refers to his work as incomparable a little later on ­– turns a condition of reading that anyone might find recognizable and dismaying into a substantive quality of writing. I have wondered several times since reading The Tanners how much of the poetry I truly love seems to dissolve upon reading, and that’s a good point of wonder to carry around every now and then.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 4th, 2009 by Anselm Berrigan.