Sunday, October 21, 2007

A book's right time

"There is only one way to read which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-- and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is a part of a trend or a movement... Don't read a book out of its right time for you." Doris Lessing, 1971. Preface to The Golden Notebook.

Which is a wonderful thought and entirely true. However, like all truths, I can poke holes in this.

On "dropping books which bore you"-- a contentious point in reading circles. I rarely do it myself, can think of two or three books in the past year, and why don't I drop books which bore me? The Golden Notebook is a case in point: last Tuesday afternoon I was pulling my shopping trolley through the Roxton Road parkette, dispairing that The Golden Notebook had ever been written. "I hate it," I was wailing, as the trolley bumped along. "I'm 192 pages in, and I don't think I can take 400 more." Why not drop it, it was suggested to me? "But what a waste of those 192 pages," I cried. (These are the problems, clearly, of the more fortunate people in the world). "What am I ever going to do?"

Indeed, the book was a slog. Structurally the problem is obvious: essentially broken up into four sections, the first one takes up half the book. The currency of the book was also a problem, as it was not so current nearly fifty years later. Its politics were obsolete, its structure made me wonder if I was being made fun of, I was bored bored bored, there on page 192.

But then I turned to page 193 when I got home, and the whole book changed. Suddenly it made sense to me, and from then on I was enjoying myself. Nothing dramatic had shifted, but the pieces now fit. I understood what Doris Lessing was trying to do with her fragmented, enormous novel. I understood what she was saying about men and women, idealism, writing, the point of art at all. But not completely-- so much of this went over my head. I truly believe that Anna and Molly might have had a better time had they spent time with men who weren't horrible. Indeed a lot of the book was still a bit tedious, but what The Golden Notebook is attempting to capture is life. Or life at a a time, and it does, I think. Not since Woolf have I ever read a text more Woolfian. "I have only to write a phrase like 'I walked down the street', or take a phrase from a newspaper 'economic measures which lead to the full use of...' and immediately the words dissolve, and my mind starts spawning images which have nothing to do with the words, so that every word I see or hear seems a small raft bobbing about on an enormous sea of images".

I try to read the books I "should" or "ought", whose authors have just awarded Nobel prizes, because I am not as effective a self-educator as Doris Lessing. I need a bit of help every so often, to fill in my gaps, to fill out the world. And I tend not to drop the books which are boring me either, because so often page 193 is waiting just around the corner.