“There doesn’t seem to be a worn-out cliché he doesn’t hail as nuanced, which has also become a cliché.”
“I never trust her reviews. What she calls lyrical writing is so purple and sentimental I’m surprised the pages don’t drip syrup.”
“You said Metamorphosis was funny. That was the most depressing thing I’ve ever read.”
“If he likes a book, you know that if there are any women in it, they’re either trophies or fridgesicles.”
“The people who can get through that book don’t see the many mistakes the author made with history.”
And, most often, “Did you read the same book I did?”
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been enthralled by the fact that though we each have differing life experiences, we can share this one experience: a book. Even though the events of the book are not real, whoa, our emotional reactions definitely are. Just as real as the memories we make of books, though the events never actually happened: what’s more, these are memories that we can share with total strangers. Discovering that someone read, and loved, a beloved book gives me the same frisson as “Were you there, too?”
“You said Metamorphosis was funny. That was the most depressing thing I’ve ever read.”
Of course those vivid memories can trigger off wildly different emotional reactions. I remember one year, when we were reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis in German.
The professor of that particular class was very young for a prof. He’d escaped as a teen from East Germany with nothing but a backpack. Deep in winter, during the extra-cold war of the fifties. He was totally alone. He left his family without telling them what he planned—to protect them—and was unable to contact them afterward.
When he got to the west he worked like a demon, attaining university, where he absorbed the dark, dark German literature of the fifties and early sixties. Ten years later, while we were reading Kafka, he kept looking at us in utter disbelief and even contempt, repeating incredulously, “Don’t you see how funny this is?”
I looked at my fellow students, and none of us were laughing. The prof all but called us stupid; he did say that we were lazy readers as well as spoiled, immature Americans.
Assuming that my total inability to find the humor (and aware of the deadly essay assignment looming, which in those days was almost always about relevance or existentialism) meant I was as stupid as he all-but called us, I cheated. I read it in English—just to find it even drearier than in German.
Spoiled Rotten Readers
None of us did well in that particular class. The highest grade I ever got was a C, though I worked harder for that prof than I did for just about any of my other professors in that department, who were Americans. Maybe they were wrong to cut us some slack, correcting our spoken German with perhaps a modicum of weariness when we couldn’t always remember if certain prepositions declined in the accusative or dative (or both), and never with that frigid contempt that demanded a high standard with every utterance.
Looking back at that experience nearly fifty years later, I can agree that, yep, in the eyes of most of the world we baby boomers born in the post-war rise of the American economy were spoiled rotten, but I do not agree that we were lazy readers. We worked hard at that text, lexicons at hand for just about every sentence. What we lacked was not drive, but cultural perspective as well as vocabulary.
Rereading Kafka now, I catch what I suspect is a glimpse of a highly sensitive, deeply depressed and anxious author, who in another age might have been a mystic: Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is probably not even his best work, though it might be his most accessible. The humor is also there, but it’s the blackly desperate humor of someone aware of scrabbling in one’s cramped little environment to make order out of what he perceived as the howling indifference of the universe; Kafka’s sentences navigate an anxious ambiguity when one longs for clarity, sometimes delivering that Germanic whiplash with those ending verbs.
We students, some of us still in our teens, had utterly no concept of what life might have been like during times when the legal system at best was inquisitorial, when anyone connected with Jews (even if professing no religious inclinations) was aware of countless whispered accounts of people like Alfred Dreyfus, without the happy ending of one’s cause taken up by famous writers campaigning for justice. The fact that Kafka felt driven to write all his life, but burned ninety percent of his work, and in his will demanded that the rest be burned, must have suited his midnight-dark sense of humor.
Deep Dive Reading
So should we not read classics in college?
I’m already afraid of the way higher education is trending, but that’s another discussion. I can understand somewhat what motivated our professor, who was trying—if with the hammer of his own hard experience—to smash those comfortable little walls we so arrogantly thought were windows.
We all know that the idea is to broaden one’s knowledge as well as to hone one’s reading skills. Classroom literary analysis is like exercise—you do it so you’ll be better at doing other things.
Of course if you love doing the form of exercise, it changes everything. I loathed classroom discussion so much that I switched majors from English to history, and yet this was at a time that I walked miles once a month in the dusty L.A. heat, and took all-day bus rides, just to gather at various people’s homes to discuss mythopoeic literature. (Which was pretty uniformly dismissed as literature by college profs of my day.)
I have always enjoyed reading about others’ reading in letters and autobiographies. What did other writers find in books that I’ve read—did we like or dislike it for similar reasons?
Though I enjoy reading literary criticism, my own readerly inclinations lean toward immersion. I am well aware of critics like Nabokov (whose analysis I like, even when I don’t agree), who rather despise that. For them, reading is an intellectual game or puzzle, the reader maintaining control by always aware of the fourth wall. My delight in diving straight through that wall into the world of the book can leave behind that intellectual sense of control, a little like diving straight out of your bathing suit. You find the little bits of fabric floating about on the surface, and everyone suitably clad might utter urbane laughter, but oh, the sensation of water directly on the skin!
My ‘deep dive reading’ books are the ones I’ve read and reread many, many times over many years. They might not be comfort reads, or favorites, but some element draws me back.
I think this is a different sort of experience from the passion that causes us to revisit a work over and over within a relatively short space. Like our endless discussions of Lord of the Rings as teenagers. Those were the passion reads, when our reading experience was immediate. I read Tolkien’s work more leisurely now, with a different sort of enjoyment. And oh, I see a whole lot more than I did even when reading it over and over at age fourteen. But that’s because the work continues to hold up to the different perspectives I bring to my reading.
Some well-loved books don’t hold up to rereading over my lifetime. There are certain Georgette Heyers, for example, that I shake my head at and bypass with a “Not this time,” though I checked them out over and over when I was a teen. Regency Buck is nigh unreadable now, with its constant humiliations of the heroine at every turn, the ‘happy ending’ comprised of her falling into the arms of the guy who, eugh, mastered her. I so much prefer to reread Pride and Prejudice, which, though it also encompasses humiliation, deploys it equally, the male, for all his pride of place, having as much to learn as the female.
Decades later, Pride and Prejudice has disclosed many layers that were invisible to me at the time: how new this type of story was in so many respects; the emotional cost of Delicacy (silence); the invisible rules of class. I am always observing something new, yet the irony and passion and tiny-but-true observations about human behavior continue to delight me.
Sometimes I wonder if deep reading over decades might bring a reader closer to the shape of the book that the author saw. If we know a text so well we can almost shut our eyes and write it verbatim, is there a chance we might be able to glimpse the work more through the author’s eyes than our own?
I feel the ghostly admonishing fingers of my old profs, warning of committing the dreaded intentional fallacy! Oh, well, let’s dive out of our suits, then. Isn’t one of the delights of literature the attempt to live the lives of others, even if only in our imagination?