The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


As with many, many other books, I have eyed and been tempted by Walden/On Civil Disobedience (Penguin Classics) for a few years now. I was flicking through it the other day and came across a chapter titled "Reading", which includes the following:

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written."


"Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to
stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

"I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on
the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of this, even after the fullest dinner of meats and vegetables, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true
love run smooth -- at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having needlessly got him up there, the happy novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he did get down again! For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks. The next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down. "The Skip of the Tip-Toe-Hop, a Romance of the Middle Ages, by the celebrated author of `Tittle-Tol-Tan,' to appear in monthly parts; a great rush; don't all come together." All this
they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella -- without any improvement, that I can see, in the pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market."


Thoreau and Alvarez have been welcome because I've been having some doubts over the past few months about the worth of reading...literature...books in general. It seems a sorry substitute for life - RLS said the same thing, somewhere, which I find ironic, given that he's one of the few writers I can depend on to revive one's faith in writing. I do recognise, however, that the world is created in our imaginations, and our beliefs, and that writing is a powerful means of influencing those things. Also that in a highly mediated world, we spend a lot of time thinking - and worrying - about things that we have no direct experience of. And that writing is a way of extending experience. One can describe the War on Terror as a perverted use of story. And while we may experience event (x) directly, the way we interpret it may depend on internal narrative pathways laid down by - blah blah blah, I'm really too tired for this. But it's a notion, which I'll have to float with four acquaintances who're practicing head-shrinkers of various denominations.

As with other sloughs, I suspect the answer to this one will simply be to get the head down, and keep moving forwards.


At 18 August 2006 at 15:12 , Blogger Joe said...

For some reason I'm picturing Bill Hicks, my patron saint, doing his "so I'm reading in a Waffle House in Texas and this waitress asks me 'watcha reading for?' Not 'what are you reading?' but 'watcha reading for?'. Gee she stumped me there. I read for many reasons. One of them is so I don't end up a fucking Waffle House waitress. Then some redneck truckers come over and mutter 'welllll, looks like we got ourselves a reada!'"

Narrative and story are a hardwired component of the human brain; they appear to be a part of what gives us our faculty for language and so also for abstract thought. Personally I've always felt that the acts of reading and writing exercise those areas; both require thought, not just in the mechanical construction of words into sentences but thought about how a sentence will be, why it will be, what you are trying to say, how it relates to other sentences and idea.

I'm not sure I would ever consider books a substitute for real life though. Everything we see and feel our brains interpret, re-arranging into a narrative of events, feelings, characters and interactions. Writing and reading externalise and share those narratives with others so really, it is all life. Besides I am never likely to dogfight in Spitfire but I can experience a little of that 'real' life in Bader's Reach for the Sky or I can travel the 19th century great plains of America alongside RLS.

besides, who says real life is real? We could all be characters in another head, words on a page of a larger book. Reality and imagination are rarely as clearly divided as most people like to assume.

At 3 September 2006 at 19:07 , Blogger Yvonne said...

There's a good chapter on how to read in Robertson Davies' book of essays, Voices from the Attic. It recommends visualising the scenes in the book, and giving different voices to each character, as if the whole thing was a play in your head. Of course, this is much easier if the book is well-written.

At 4 September 2006 at 22:45 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

My wife is a big fan of Robertson Davies and keeps trying to get me to read him. Of course, I am trying to pursue my own interests (when I'm not being diverted from them by new ones), so all I can do is put down a marker in the hope that one day I'll get back to him. Prompts and recommends are always welcome though.

I agree that narrative feels as if it's inherent in (to?) being human, and no doubt there are studies anthropological and psychological around to support this. Our experience of life is pretty much as a straight chronological narrative - though this doesn't allow for the power of memory and emotion to distort, fold and complexify things (see Garner's Red Shift). I also acknowledge the fuzzy line between the 'real' and 'imagined' - and am increasingly firm of the view that the world takes place in our imaginations, and that nothing can happen in it which does not first occur there.


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