Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reading's Serious Pleasure

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Now that Jaipur's "largest free literary festival on earth” has come to a close, it’s time to return to the quiet, private activity that makes all such festivals possible. Reading. As Anna Quindlen observes in How Reading Changed My Life, “Of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung.”

Her own love of reading is what Wendy Lesser, founding editor of the Threepenny Review, unpacks in her new book, Why I Read. Why does she read? “To pass the time. To savor the existence of time.To escape from myself into someone else’s world.To find myself in someone else’s words.To exercise my critical capacities. To flee from the need for rational explanations.” In short, as the book’s subtitle has it, reading yields serious pleasure.

Lesser goes on make clear where she finds such pleasure, and in this, she reveals herself to be more conservative than catholic. Nineteenth century literary realism is her touchstone, and Henry James her exemplar. Authors bare their prejudices and partialities in the books they write; readers do so with the ones they read.

Many of Lesser’s opinions – and some can be incisive – arise from a dissection of her favoured tradition. On plot and character, for example, she writes, “it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot…we know what people are only by seeing what they do when confronted with what happens to them”.

It’s not that Lesser only focuses on so-called literary fiction: happily, murder mysteries and detective stories come in for praise, too. “A novel like A Coffin for Dimitrios or Ripley Under Ground is as good as almost any book written during that time, and I venture to say we will be reading these novels for as long as people read John Updike or Toni Morrison.”

She is acerbic, however, when it comes to those who fall outside her preferred purview: “There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature.” She makes the point that style and structure should be at the service of overall intent and not merely ornamental, but strangely, scorns those who have done so. Franz Kafka’s “strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure” and Joyce’s Ulysses “is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves”. The past, as always, has the answers, with Cervantes and Swift held up as successful innovators. (To be fair, there's also praise for Murakami and Bolano as well as -- oddly enough -- Norman Mailer.)

Other Modernists are hardly mentioned, and she also disdains the unreliable narrator, “that foolish, pathetic guy who thinks he’s telling us the whole story when we and the author are obviously meant, at least eventually, to see around him”. Anyone who’s read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, to take just one example, would find that hard to digest.

Lesser’s slightly more accommodating of e-books. Preferring the physical object for its spatial orientation, among other things, she nonetheless is a fan of Project Gutenberg and rightly points out that those "who have grown up reading bound books will miss them if they disappear, not because printed books are objectively preferable, but because we will feel deprived of something we care about".

Such devotion to reading in an age of electronic distraction is admirable, but Lesser's insistence on preferred texts makes her book overly prescriptive. Then again, her title does have a personal pronoun. For a different point of view, one has to turn to another logophile, Alberto Manguel, who, echoing Kafka, once wrote: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

To Be Read In Bed

A slightly condensed version of this appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

I spent most of last weekend in a horizontal position, something I can heartily recommend to anyone seeking a break from the city’s hustle and bustle. One’s needs become simple: a comfortable bed, some food and, of course, wi-fi access. My bed, however, pales in comparison to the one designed for Maharaja Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi IV of Bahawalpur in the 1880s. Built in Paris, it weighed more than a ton, including 290 kilograms of silver, and featured statues of buxom females at each corner. When the Maharaja stretched out, music began to play and the arms of the figures moved, creating a soothing breeze at the head of the bed and keeping flies away from the royal feet. History does not record whether this was conducive to sleep.

The story of the kingly bedstead is among the many recounted in The Art of Lying Down, a delightful little volume by Bernd Brunner, recently translated from German by Lori Lantz. Brunner defines himself as working at “the intersections of cultural history and the history of science” and has, in the past, written about subjects as diverse as the history of Christmas trees, aquariums and the moon. In his “guide to horizontal living”, Brunner makes a persuasive case that choosing to lie down can be “a calculated move to escape the ever-present pressure to be fast and efficient”. Such surrender to gravity is not an act of laziness but one of resistance: to turn one’s back on the modern world, one keeps the back in bed. It’s a move that doesn’t call for defensiveness; as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man.” Tellingly, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt have also pointed out that the “three great acts of life” are “birth, coitus, and death,” all of which usually involve lying down.

Brunner then branches out into other aspects of his subject. He’s no votary of lying down in the great outdoors for prolonged periods, but Turkish hamams meet with his approval, as do divans. He also notes that the Greeks and Romans were known to eat and drink while lying down. This, of course, calls to mind traditional Indian habits of reclining during music and dance performances, as well as such representations of Ganesha, Vishnu and Buddha, among others, not to mention Mughal miniatures of lounging lords.

The Art of Lying Down also goes into details of how mattresses and recliners have evolved (Brunner waxes eloquent over the invention of the coiled spring) as well as the ways and poistions in which people have wooed sleep. Examples of the latter include the classic Spoon, the Tandem Cyclists, the Zipper and the extreme Bread and Spread, “in which one partner lies directly on top of the other (who somehow manages to avoid being crushed or suffocated)”.

Writers are among those who have long known the worth of lying down; it’s almost a professional perk. Mark Twain and Proust are perennial examples. Edith Wharton, according to Brunner, celebrated her eightieth birthday in bed with a candle-covered cake that caught on fire. (A nice anecdote, but one wonders at its veracity because Wharton died when she was 75.) As for Flaubert, it’s said of him that he “would have liked to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching cities, ruins, and landscapes pass before him like the screen of a panorama.”  And Truman Capote was characteristically unambiguous: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch.”

Lying down can also be a form of activism and Brunner mentions John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous 1969 bed-in to protest the Vietnam War. He could have also cast his eye on the numerous horizontal demonstrations over the years – there was one just two months ago, when thousands of cyclists lay across a London street to agitate against dangerous traffic conditions. A case of lying down to take a stand.

Clearly, the art of lying down doesn’t exist just for its own sake. Brunner affirms that “it is inextricably linked to other art forms: the art of doing nothing, of being content with little, of enjoyment and relaxation and, of course, the proverbial art of love”. He even suggests that “human culture can be viewed as a side effect of our ancestors’ efforts to get a good night’s sleep”. Such efforts continue; meanwhile, one takes solace from the epigraph by Groucho Marx: “A thing that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all”.