What I liked about Genet, author of Our Lady of the Flowers (a novel) and The Balcony, The Blacks, The Maids, and The Screens (plays), was his exuberance and his complete disdain for all things conventional. There was a vitality in his writing that appealed to me, and it was certainly true as well of Beckett, an Irish writer who was the most dire, the very grimmest of the modernists, but even so, had a joyfulness about him. What you found in Beckett that was so refreshing was a clearing of the decks. He wasn’t interested in any kind of artifice or pretense at all. What you ended up with was a joy in his writing that I loved. It was also very, very funny. What I embraced was the way he swept past the cob-webs of so-called modernism and just got rid of it. Dumped it. Cleaned the table off and said, “Okay, what’s really here?”
In spite of my constant reading, I wasn’t a literary person. I didn’t study books and I didn’t take courses in literature. I pursued literature as a personal refreshment. My opinions didn’t need to be authenticated or verified by anyone else. I read books for their pleasure and their transformative power.
PHILIP GLASS Words Without Music
Two hundred square feet of bliss.
1915 Ste Catherine W.
I wasn’t sure what it would get me, what approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren’t my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank to be filled in.
WALTER KIRN, from Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
“You never dip into the same book twice.”*
Systematic reading is of little help. Following an official book list (of classics, of literary history, of censored or recommended reading, of library catalogues) may, by chance, throw up a useful name, as long as we bear in mind the motives behind the lists. But the best guides, I believe, are the reader’s whims—trust in pleasure and faith in haphazardness—which sometimes leads us into a makeshift state of grace, allowing us to spin gold out of flax.
All true readings are subversive, against the grain, as Alice, a sane reader, discovered in the Looking-Glass world of mad name givers. The Duchess calls mustard “a mineral”; the Cheshire Cat purrs and calls it “growling”; a Canadian prime minister tears up the railway and calls it “progress”; a Swiss businessman traffics in loot and calls it “commerce”; an Argentinean president shelters murderers and calls it “amnesty.” Against such misnomers readers can open the pages of their books. In such cases of willful madness, reading helps us maintain coherence in the chaos. Not to eliminate it, not to enclose experience within conventional verbal structures, but to allow chaos to progress creatively on its own vertiginous way. Not to trust the glittering surface of words but to burrow into the darkness.
ALBERTO MANGUEL, A Reader on Reading. New Haven, Conn : Yale UP, 2010 7-8.
Photo: Amy Ng