Reading is at once a lonely and an intensely sociable act. The writer becomes your ideal companion – interesting, worldly, compassionate, energetic – but only if you stick with him or her for a while, long enough to throw off the chill of isolation and to hear the intelligent voice murmuring in your ear. No wonder Victorian parents used to read out loud to the whole family (a chapter of Dickens a night by the precious light of the single candle); there’s nothing lonely about laughing or crying together – or shrinking back in horror. Even if solitary, the reader’s inner dialogue with the writer – questioning, concurring, wondering, objecting, pitying – fills the empty room under the lamplight with silent discourse and the expression of emotion.

Who are the most companionable novelists? Marcel Proust and George Eliot; certainly they’re the most intelligent, able to see the widest implications of the simplest act, to play a straightforward theme on the mighty organs of their minds: soft/loud, quick/slow, complex/chaste, reedy/ orchestral. But we also cherish Leo Tolstoy’s uncanny empathy for diverse people and even animals, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyricism, Colette’s worldly wisdom, James Merrill’s wit, Walt Whitman’s biblical if agnostic inclusiveness, Annie Dillard’s sublime nature descriptions. When I was a youngster I loved novels about the Lost Dauphin or the Scarlet Pimpernel or the Three Musketeers – adventure books enacted in the clear, shadowless light of Good and Evil.

If we are writers, we read to learn our craft. In college I can remember reading a now-forgotten writer, R.V. Cassill, whose stories showed me that a theme, once taken up, could be dropped for a few pages only to emerge later, that in this way one could weave together plot elements. That seems so obvious now, but I needed Cassill to teach me the secrets of polyphonic development. In her extremely brief notes on writing, Elizabeth Bowen taught me that you can’t invent a body or face – you must base your description on a real person. Bowen also revealed how epigrams can be buried into a flowing narrative. She said that in dialogue people are either deceiving themselves or striving to deceive others and that they rarely speak the disinterested, unvarnished truth. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw showed me how Chinese-box narrators can destabilize the reader sufficiently to make a ghost story seem plausible.

Sometimes I read now to fill up my mind-banks with new coins –  new words, new ideas, new turns of phrase. From Joyce Carol Oates I learned to alternate italicized passages of mad thought with sentences in Roman type narrating and describing in a straightforward manner. To me the first half of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow shows how far prose can go toward the poetic without falling into a sea of rose syrup.

Each classic is eccentric. Samuel Beckett is both bleak and comic. Karl Ove Knausgaard is both boring and engrossing. Proust is so long-winded he often loses the thread of an anecdote; too many interpellations can make a story nonsensical – and sublimely interesting, if the narrator possesses a sovereign intellect. V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival is both confiding and absurdly discreet (he doesn’t mention he’s living in the country with his wife and children, for instance; nor does he tell us that his madman-proprietor is one of England’s most interesting oddballs, Stephen Tennant). I suppose all these examples demonstrated to me that any excess can be rewarding if it explores the writer’s unique sensibility and goes too far. The farthest reaches of fiction are marked by Mircea Cărtărescu’s monumental Blinding and Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man and Compass by Mathias Énard – and there are no books more memorable.

Almost every literary gay book gets sent to me for a blurb, and I’ve become a true ‘blurb slut.’ It’s a bit like being a loose woman; everyone mocks you for your liberality – and everyone wants at least one date with you. I like to help first-time authors (if I admire their work), but serious writers aren’t supposed to be so generous with their favors. Now that I’m old I turn down most manuscripts, and I always remind publishers that I might not like their new books if I do read them. A good blurb is pithy, phrased unforgettably, at once precise and a statement that makes broad claims for the book.

Reading books by friends is a special problem. They usually want a review, not a mere blurb. If I have mixed feelings about a friend’s book, I phone him or her rather than write something. In a conversation one can judge how honest the writer wants you to be. He or she will clam up right away or press for a fuller statement. Sometimes I give writers reports as I read along; most writers can’t wait for a week to get a full report.

Reading books for pleasure, of course, is the greatest joy. No need to underline, press on, try out mentally summarizing or evaluating phrases. One is free to read as a child reads – no duties, no goals, no responsibilities, no clock ticking: pure rapture. Proust’s essay ‘On Reading’ is a magical account of a child’s absorption in a book, his regret about leaving the page for the dinner table, even the erotic aspect (he reads in the water closet and associates with it the smell of orris root). Perhaps my pleasure in reading has kept me from being a systematic reader. I never get to the bottom of anything but just step from one lily pad to another.

Until something dire happens to me, I’ll continue to read (and occasionally to write). Someone said a writer should read three times more than he or she writes. I’m afraid I read much more than I set to paper. There is no greater pleasure than to lie between clean sheets, listen to music, and read under a strong light. (I write to music, too – it cuts down on the loneliness and helps a nonmusician like me to resist and to concentrate.) I suppose everyone who has gotten this far has felt the secret joy of knowing that a good, suspenseful book is waiting half read beside your pillow. For me, right now it’s John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, dedicated to John Irving, whose books have kept me awake for decades.

 


Image result for the unpunished vice edmund white

This is an excerpt from Edmund White’s The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, available now with Bloomsbury.

Image © Robert Cheaib

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