the dance of the words

"The books we love do ruthlessly disclose something about us, as do the books we do not. And despite everything above, I am not certain I want to know what exactly my inability to read some great writers says about me."
- Tom Bissell, 'I'd prefer not to,' an essay published for

I honestly thought I was the only one.I found the list of what someone, somewhere, decided was the 'hundred greatest books of the twentieth century' and, like the dutiful child I am, set out to 'better myself.'

Perhaps if I read the words, absorbed the craft, and submerged myself in the art of the well-written book, I would find a way to fill the lack of understanding within myself that has, up to now, prevented me from writing to the limits of my capability and talent. Perhaps the smell of the ink and the dance of the words would subconsciously influence the shift and sway of the still-fetal words nestled snugly in the recesses of my own mind. After all, if you provide a troubled person with acquaintances of goodly character, they often reform; why shouldn't the same be true of a hesitant, still-green writer?

But I have had this secret. I read the books. Some I loved. Some I liked. Some I finished with a breath redolent of frustration and relief—"Oh, thank God that is over." Some I found myself hating so badly that I could not even finish the first five chapters, much less the book.

What, I thought, does this say about me, the green girl who vacillates between graphic artist, writer, and coder? Does my inability to spontaneously embrace and adore some of the 'greats' of literature stand as the greatest testament to the improbability that I shall ever write something worthy of preservation and study?

I loved Kurt Vonnegut for his vivid imagination.

I hated Theodore Dreiser for tracing his world with ever more leaden words until his world bowed and broke beneath the sheer weight of his prose.

I loved Edith Wharton and Jane Austen for the same reason I repeatedly fell asleep to Henry James: the rigidity of society, the sharpness of observation, and the minutiae of detail.

I don't even like Hemingway. God knows I've tried. I can see the beauty in his prose—even the blind could reach out and feel the supple grace of his words in the same way they could feel the steel behind a dancer's muscle. While I love the beauty of his phrasing, I find myself locked out from the soaring joy that others seem to find in his work.

I could go on, and normally I would, but the minutes tick by as I sit here, ranting. You get the point; you have undoubtedly endured it yourself: the book so dull and enervating that by the end of chapter three you are dreaming of nothing more than burrowing your nose down into the side of the book for a long….dreamless … wordless … sleep.

I have been in love with the power of the written word for as long as I can remember. I do not remember a time in which I could not read, but I do remember the day that I fell in love with books.

Fourth grade. The end of the year.

Third grade, for the rest of you, for I'd been double-promoted at the beginning of the year. It was standardized test time. How to explain that I loved standardized tests? I treated them as a game, a game to be finished quickly and perfectly, and my reward was immediate: the book I brought with me that day.

The week before standardized tests that year, I had gotten daring and gone down to the 'adult fiction' section of the local library. The book I chose: Gone With The Wind. Why? I don't even remember my reasons now. But I raced through the questions and dove guiltily into my book.

It took me two days to get it. The first day, I plodded through the dialect, unable to conjure the 'magic moment'—when the words on a page stop being printed words, and become something best described as a voice, telling me a story inside my head.

When that moment comes, I don't see words. I hear. It is magic—the most addictive magic I have ever known. I know this now, but the child I was didn't know that then—so when the words left the page and took light and wing, I was entranced. I stayed up late, reading. I finished the tests as quickly as I could, so that I could sink my eyes into the ink and paper and open them in the space of another world.

I believed then that the magic could carry me through any book.

As a college student, I learned differently. I learned that there were books that, no matter how hard I tried to let go, to let the words flow at their own pace, never took wing. They remained—mortal, almost—just…words. The reading of words, a single, mechanically-printed word at a time, was the most leaden and depressing thing I had ever found.

Two years later I left the field of literature, depressed and discouraged, and doubting that I would ever return. I always assumed that the success or failure of the process of connection with a book was entirely up to me, that if I was unable to see the author's intended beauty that I was always the one at fault. If I was incapable of appreciating 'art,' how could I be expected to craft anything artlike of my own?

This from the same woman who curled her toes in delight and laughter at the sly mockery of Nobokov's Pale Fire, who cried at the end of the last John Irving book she read…and who sat at her desk at the end of the fourth grade, silently mouthing the words to Gone With The Wind as the transcription of antebellum life slowly came to life within her mind.

How strange it is to find that I'm not the only person who can face some particular 'works of art' and see nothing. All along, I'd assumed that a book's inclusion in the 'canon of English literature' meant that I would be able to not just appreciate it, but enjoy it, just by virtue of its artistic merit.

Maybe now I'll feel a little more free to say, "Yes, this is supposedly a great work of art, and I don't care what you say, you silly professors, but I think it stinks!"

Joseph Conrad and Theodore Dreiser, I'm coming for you guys. I want all the time I spent on The Secret Agent and Sister Carrie back, please…


So I'm not the only one who hears a voice when I read a book? I've always heard that doing so was "bad reading form". Of course, that's probably from the speed-readers, who realize that most kids want to zip through a book, retain the "important stuff", and then go back outside and play in the dirt. While I've never had what anyone would describe as a love for classic literature--name a classic, and I probably haven't read it--I always seem to be reading something. When I'm not reading something, I feel empty ... which explains the plethora of reading material that's always to be found anywhere near where I am. Of course, I've never claimed to even want to be a writer ... but that's because my writing is always focused on what I'd say to you if I could speak to you, I guess. I feel that, in most cases, I write very much like I speak--except that my grammar's a little better when I have to stare at it on the page. :) But it's just my own peculiar writing style--nothing all that great or earth-shaking or whatever. On the writers that can be easy to hate ... I remember EH 206, when we got to a dreadfully horrid piece of literature--so bad, in fact, that its name is wiped from my memory. Dr. Moore came into class, stopped, looked up at us, and said, "Who finished this?" No one raised their hands. He replied, "Good, because I didn't, either. I got to about page 764 and wanted to puke." The class broke up in laughter, and he said, "Okay, now let me tell you why this reading is in our survey ... and I'll hit the high points, which I've blessedly marked--and yes, they exist!, and then we'll move on to something more fun." I don't remember what work of Dreiser I read back in 12th grade, but damn if I didn't hate it. Same with Conrad, too. Important for what they meant to the movements they belong to ... having historical signifance but certainly nothing to make a body want to pick it up and read it again and again. Of course, none of this explains why I go through my shelf of Clancy novels every 18 months or so. I'm about due to start again, since another of his crud novels will publish in August, and I might as well brush up on my storyline ...

It's such a relief to know that I'm not the only one who can hear and picture a good book in her mind as she reads it. I always kept that under wraps because I was afraid people would think I had an overactive imagination or somesuch. It's what makes seeing movies based off of books so hard for me because if it was a good book, then I most likely already have everything pictured in my mind the way the author describes it. As for literature. I did the same as you, Ames. I took advantage of finishing tests quickly and perfectly so that I could read whatever book I had picked up recently. I was grateful to avoid most of the bad authors you're forced to read in high school because I had a teacher who believed in reading something different. So, I got a good taste of some classical literature. My only problem was Faulkner. I just can't get through his heavy writing. It makes me want to just curl up and take a nap. I appreciate him for his brilliance at writing, it's just not writing that I can enjoy. College was a drudgery, though. I disliked literature classes and it only made it worse because my teachers never liked my writing style, but wouldn't sit down and tell me how to improve it. Thankfully, because of high school, I do still enjoy sitting down and reading a classic. Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors of all time.

Kat, Faulkner is not brilliant. He was drunk. That's about all there is to it. There is an entire chapter in 'As I Lay Dying' composed of : My mother is a fish. That's it! I'm a lot like Geof I think in my choice of books. I love a good Clancy novel. After reading Lord of the Rings, its so nice to read something that I can fly right through because the prose is not so fancy and detailed. It gets right into things. I read through that list and I have read three of the items. I've also read some excerpts from a couple (On the Road being one of them). As for not liking certain authors, I had an English prof at State tell me that in most cases you either like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. And you can't like both of them. I have to agree with that.

Frighteningly I've read 14 of the "Top 100" books. I'm actually amazed I've read that many. I do agree with you, Rick, though that Faulkner's a bit weird. Who could ever forget that chapter? I think I even remember the person's prospective it was written from. Wasn't it Simon who said that?

My mortal enemy in the book world: Ulysses. Perhaps the only book I've ever cursed aloud at, for many of the reasons you touch on (and one or two best left untouched). Give me "The Dead" anytime. (Likewise, the Conrad of The Secret Agent and the Conrad of Heart of Darkness were two vastly different reading experiences to me.) I never read a Dickens I didn't love, but as for Austen... I took to Pride & Prejudice from page one, yet gave up on Emma after a few chapters - it was like swimming upstream. Go figure. (I'm determined to try again someday, though - I *will* finish that, *and* Paradise Lost, *and* Remembrance of Things Past, if it kills me, oh yes I will... someday...)

Am I the only one here who enjoyed Paradise Lost? Hell, I have Yale's Milton anthology on my desk at home. He's an interesting read for me. My mother is a fish. I remember reading that and wanting to throw my summer reading list across the room. Of course, I also had Dr. Curtis [this commentary is for Rick's benefit], so I ended up wanting to hang myself before the end of the semester anyway. Some say Faulkner is Mississippi's best writer. I say hogwash ... I'd put Grisham in before him! [The honor truly goes to Eudora Welty, with Richard Wright right up there.]

I have read about 35 of the "Top 100" and found myself being "forced" to finish several of what are considered to be the greatest works of literature of all time. I still want to know who judges the "greatness" of a novel and what criterion are being used. I am apparently the only person on the face of the earth who can like both Dickens and Austen (although it took some time to get used to Jane). I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember (having a father who is an english prof will do that to you) and some of the "greatest" literature in history is mind-numbingly boring. I read "fluff" as much as I read real lit but I can honestly say I enjoy the mental bubble-yum more. There is an exception on the list though...a book that I have probably read 50 times if I have read it once...and I was somewhat surprised to see it on the list. A Clockwork Orange...classic literature? I wholeheartedly agree...but it surprises me that literary critics do as well. Anyhew...back to reality...

Voices, pictures, the whole nine yards... for me, reading is like watching a mini-movie. (And boy am I glad I'm not the only one who would whiz through standardized tests just so I could get to my novel of the week...Although in 3rd grade I got in trouble for reading "Huck Finn"; they didn't teach it until 8th grade and the teacher wanted me to put it away and read something more "on my level". That was the year I placed in the 98th percentile, meaning there was 2% that did better than me. HA!)

Okay, I've read 10 of them. I can honestly say taht I think I actually liked 2 of those. The rest hold no interest. And yes, the voices in my head do read to me...

I went and looked ... I've read some or all of only five of them. :)

About forty here. (Spending one's entire lifetime in one's room has its advantages.) =)

Can't you qualify that "entire" statement a bit now, Noah? :)

Somewhat, but my center of gravity is still indoors. =) (Not to derail the conversation - mad props to the voices, yo.)

Are we speaking of the voices inside your head or some other voices?

The voices in your head that read along with you, I guess. Those other voices, they just annoy me. The ones that say, "Tickle Kat, she won't mind" usually get ignored.

No comment. Nor I. Me either.

Yeah, the ones that tell you to tickle me had better be ignored. Otherwise the chicks of ClubTodder are going to have to come beat you up.

The chicks of ClubTodder. That thought tickles me to no end. Heh. [Actually, someone would probably use a slightly less appropriate female referential name, but I wish to live, and this isn't my site ...] And for the record, they aren't my voices. They belong to someone else. :)

Geof - I LOVE paradise lost, and reread it about every 2 years... i still cant quote anything from it though... =) it seems sacriligeous because I know I'll muck it up. My Milton But then, i like most of miltons work, and wordsworth... yeah, i know. flowery and pretentious and certainly dead. On The Voices: the word most DEFINATELY compose their own journey in my head... involving voices and picutes and occasionally physical reactions... BUT, i only find this when I am seriously engrossed in a book. In which case my reading speed drops and i pretty much ignore the world. If I am speed-reading, its very different. It tends to start out sounding like me reading to myself in my head, then descends to the important snippets being read out as i pick up speed, and eventually (and this only seems to ahppen if I am mildly interseted in the material), becomes a mental mind map where important things drop into place in a new appropriately coloured/shaped/textured and connected blob. reading in blobs is interesting... but at the end i know enough to be able to do well on exams or talk knowledgably in a meeting. Very very different from recreational reading though. My earliest reading experience (apart from fake reading when i was about 4, I had memorized my Sparky the Firedog book and "read" it to my dad, but I'd missed a page so about halfway through, he relaized what was going on... =) was in Grade One, we had this reading challenge... and i was really upset when one of the Grade two girls got to 100 books a day before me. so I beat her to 200 and a 500 by a good margin... i found out later that she totally cheated by reading easy books. that made me mad. anyway. I still got the TShirt that said I was a bookworm. How geeky.

In the fifth grade I would pay attention for a little while, I'd get tired of what was going on around me and I'd read. Not just when I was finished with the test, but during lessons, activites, and other such things. I read tons of stuff, and after this went on for a little while the teacher realized that there wasn't much he could do to stop me, so rather than try, he provided me with reading material. My first book (not fiction as I might have hoped) was A Breif History of Time. If only more teachers were like him.

I think starting in about 2nd grade, my teacher got tired of me reading books while she lectured at the front of the class (it wasn't a big deal for me, I could do all of the work she was teaching) so she either let me sit at the back of the class and do the next grade's up math and other stuff or she wound up getting me to help tutor the other students in the class when she couldn't get to them herself. Reading partners for me was a disaster. In 2nd grade, we had 5th graders come to our class once a week and help us read. I was at a higher level of reading than my 5th grade partner, so that kind of failed right there. I think I wound up teaching her more about reading than the other way around. *sigh* Oh well, just call me a bookworm like the rest of us.