in rural Paris, Iowa, and Wordpress

The Reading Curse

ROBERTO BOLAÑO 1953-2003I  am a reader, not a writer. Nonetheless, I did write the following profane rumination on the deleterious effects of reading, specifically reading the wrong things, in late January 2010. The particular novel at hand then was 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

At page 803 of this novel, something occurred to me. It was an idea with the same beautiful simplicity and clarity of the little bell that I used to hear inside my head at cocktail hour. When I have finished this novel, there will be no point in reading any other novel for the rest of my life. I will finally be done with all of that. I have had this vague feeling for some time that there was something else that I needed to correct, some further, last little personal adjustment. Clearly, this is it.

The ways in which novels have tricked up my head throughout my life to this point make the ways that liquor and women tricked up my head look like paltry, harmless eccentricities. First of all, I had no business ever undertaking great novels in the first place. I do not have the intellectual wherewithal to properly metabolize the best of them. And of course, I always tried to read the best. Why fuck around smoking kid’s stuff when you can mainline a freight train?

Given that simple fact, to think that I chose English literature as my major at university! That is illustrative on several levels. It never crossed my mind to do my undergraduate work in a field in which one could earn money. Never crossed my mind.

Later, I practiced law–in the sense of the pure work, relatively successfully by the way. But there was never any time, energy, or inclination left over to think about money or care about money. No, all of my quality time, energy, and inclination was devoted to reading goddamned novels, when I was not talking about novels in a bar, that is. Pissing away my time on dreams that I was not mentally equipped to dream.

Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence

Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Second, I had no capability for keeping a proper emotional distance from these bastards. These novelists. Bellow, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hemingway, Camus, and that too clever Updike, to name a few. The females are just as bad or worse. George Eliot. Austen. Those damned Brontë strumpets. I could not read novels for a little harmless escape and relaxation like a normal person not afflicted with this nameless disease. No, I made those novelists’ problems my own problems, and let me assure you that their problems are all of the first order of complexity no matter how much some of them may make you laugh.

Perhaps I should have tried to start a conversation with one of those women to whom I was married, but I was too busy with Faulkner or Melville. I was more enamored with Eula Varner of Yoknapatawpha County (downright hot for her in fact) than I was with any of that crowd of real women. God, I feel sorry for them in retrospect.

This has been a bane of my existence. A plague upon my house, when I had a house. A plague upon my apartment, when I had an apartment. Clichés those, but I am too upset thinking about this to come up with anything original. I am not upset about myself. I have survived it after all and in a manner of speaking. Those novelists’ problems are not going to be my problems any more.

I am upset thinking about those few young people out there starting to read novels. Not only do their parents do nothing to stop it, many times they encourage those young people in this incredibly dangerous endeavor. As for the proper authorities, they seem perfectly oblivious.

My own parents, God bless them, could have done something to save me. But not being readers themselves, they paid no attention whatsoever to what my young self was reading. Furthermore, they were utterly lax about enforcing lights out in my bedroom. They were too preoccupied with whatever was going on in their bedroom. So there I was at the age of thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen sitting up until 3:00 a.m. reading The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer or some other such mind rot. (I do remember that the word “naked” in that title caught my attention at the time.) I did not even have to hide under a blanket with the book and a flashlight.

The way that I see it, we could lose some of the best and brightest of another generation in just that way. Young people who might otherwise accumulate capital and invest it for the general benefit of mankind. Where would we be, for example, if Bill Gates had been screwing around reading novels and staring off into space instead of devoting every bit of his time, energy, and inclinations to devising MS-DOS and contractually fucking IBM? Now he is applying a chunk of the capital that he accumulated in an effort to help feed the world. (Is that the nature of his philanthropy, or is it some other wonderful thing that he and his bride are doing? I cannot remember.)

So this is Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous personal gift to me, this novel entitled 2666. It is as if he handed this to me and said, “Señor Steve, when you finish this novel, you need not read another. It will all be over, you can put it all behind you, and you can truly breathe easily at last.”

If I get the urge to read a novel in the future, if I flirt with a relapse, I will simply reread this one. The book actually consists of five different novels, each of which will be entirely new to me every time I read it. That will do no further harm. In other words, I will never be done with this one and on to another novel with a whole new set of problems. That is the thing to be avoided here.

So that’s it. No more. It’s all over. I mean it. Don’t laugh. I am serious.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Malcolm Lowry

Malcolm Lowry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So much for that resolution so quickly abandoned along with a myriad others. I am now well into my second reading of Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry hard upon my first reading of it.

–13 June 2012.

6 Responses to “The Reading Curse”

  1. veraersilia

    You are not the only one of the school that reads novels in such a manner. I did that for many years. I went thru various other phases too. Now in my older times I primarily read history – which can be written very well, there are historians that write beautifully – I find it interesting, intellectually stimulating, but not emotional. This comment was written on Nov. 23 2012- because only today I discovered this post of yours. Regards, Vera

    Reply
    • StephenBrassawe

      Only today did I discover your comment, Vera. Sorry to be tardy in responding. After finishing “2666” I read history. In fact history was my other major in college and has been every bit as lucrative a major as the English major. Then, as I noted in the piece, I begain to backslide.

      Reply
      • veraersilia

        Thanks for your reply. Oh, yes and there was something I wanted to tell you about when I was reading novels : there were novels that I could NOT finish because they affected me so much that going on further would have “made me die” so to speak. I thought that you might understand this. It was unbearable to read any more. And I had to close that book very tight and put it away where I would not even see it. But I never threw it out because such a book is of great, great, value – only that I could not continue into it. I usually “hid” the book. I never finished reading Dr. Zhivago at all. It just generated too much emotion. I never finished The Mosquito Coast, even though I knew and loved Theroux’s acerbic wit in his travel books. And I did Cien Años de Soledad in jumps and pieces for that reason. I do not know your 2666 but I prefer to stay away from such dynamite any more. Gogol and Cechov still are like old wounds and it was a world ago when I read them as a young girl. At this age I now review my own life story as if it were a novel; if I took up one of those forbidden books again and it did not carry the same charge it would be too disappointing. Give me yet another biography of Julius Caesar or another piece of monumental Churchill; Greek, Roman and Gaulish history, even Attila, Tamerlane, etc. any day and I’ll be happy. Re-reading Thucydides right now, and a new book about O’Keeffe and Stieglitz came today. …
        Written on Dec. 3, 2012 for whenever in the night of time you may read it, if ever. I said what I had to say, ’tis enough.

        Reply
  2. StephenBrassawe

    I hope that you will forgive me, Vera, if I tell you that you have made me laugh. You obviously have as much difficulty maintaining Aristotle’s aesthetic distance from these things as I do.

    Reply
  3. mlhe

    Count me in. Lowery’s volcano book is on the nightstand; Laxness’s people book is right here next to me, mocking.

    Reply
    • StephenBrassawe

      Mary! What a pleasant shock to see you here. “Under the Volcano” is a novel of a strange feather. This should be interesting, your wading into it. Thank you for dropping by.

      Reply

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