23 February, 2007

Slower reader

Sleep evades me still. Several readers have e-mailed me with pharmaceutical suggestions: for their ideas, and still more for their curae, I am grateful. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten? I must try valerian and melatonin, though my hand hesitates, for fear that my insomniac self produces my best work. It is now 3 in the morning. I'm too tired to read, even though I have been captivated by the first pages of Jean Bodin's Colloquium Heptaplomeres, full of sapid erudition and Plutarchey goodness. So to stave off boredom I climb out of bed and write. One might say that insomnia is my enemy, but your friend.

*

I am reaching my saturation-point with blogs. Aren't you? There are so many, and I can hardly keep up with my own life, let alone these endless and diverting scriptures. God knows how anyone has the time to read the Varieties. Despite this I feel compelled to direct you to Modal Minority, the website of one Teju Cole. This man already has a devoted following, and no wonder—his writing is terrific. One piece in particular, 'Slow Reader', caught my eye. If you read it, perhaps you will spot something of me in his attitudes. For surely, only a member of my karass could write:
One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty.
Mr. Cole, you see, is not daunted by literature. Rather it is a means to an end—
Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page. . . My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.
Quite so! Perhaps you will see in this a contrary logic, but it is only a short step from Cole's sentiment to my hatred of reading. In Cole I find a spirit kindred in his desire to conquer literature. Books haunt me, and haunt him: 'I can't even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words'. It is because he fears that he will not let himself be daunted. Likewise, I am not ashamed of my horror; it is perhaps a sign that I am listening, that my ears are not yet stopped up with the conceitedness of modern lovers of literature. (I do not mean you, fair reader!) In reading I seek to escape this horror, to transcend literature for the realm of language. For me, and I wonder, for Teju: the product of reading, ultimately, must be a sort of revelling in word-stuff, a prima materia with which I can sit and sculpt. For I love to sculpt. It is only by writing—sculpting—that I am able to feel myself. This is why I lie in bed in the dark and write and sculpt in my head, incessantly. It is why I pray my insomnia will never desert me.

12 comments:

Gawain said...

conquering literature is a bit of a chimera, no? it was possible maybe 300 or 400 years ago, but today, with all the deposits of the last 4 centuries of print? i mean, there will always be a Tosa Nikki, or some Armenian classic you have not read? and if you are like some at the valve, you will also have to read all back issues of Tintin (or whatever are the names of the US comic book industry).

my own approach has been to follow a thread, for each thread, as some recent quote on transocontinental suggests, runs through the whole body of literature, touching upon all its parts, like the weft in a multi-weft fabric. or perhaps it could be likened unto (i am clearly poetically inspired) an oil exploration -- drill a test hole here, another one there, 50 miles apart, but drill deep. (what do they go, 3 km deep? 4?)

then again I am an amateur and there is an immense freedom in that: if I say something smart, people applaud, but if I don't know something, nobody raises an eyebrow: after all, I am just an amateur. :)

so I keep telling myself.

still, even I can't help the feeling that I am always hopelessly behind in all my knowledge, always behind somebody who knows more.

maybe alcibiades put it best, when he said -- aren't we lucky? we will never in our life-time run out of new things to learn about. i had this feeling recently when reading Haskell -- there were all these reproductions of western paintings in there, and perhaps full 3/4s I have never seen in reproduction or even heard of: for once I was not overwhelmed by own my stupidity but pleased to see new things.

Andrew Simone said...

I, too, have reached a saturation point on blogs. And, even the blogs I do read, I only read the choice material.

Also, insomnia seems essential for most bloggers impeti. (Is my Latin plural correct?)

Proserpine said...

When Groucho Marx had insomnia, he would call people up on the telephone and insult them.

But I suppose writing is as good a therapy as any.

(Naturally, blogging can split the difference.)

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I read as few blogs as possible, and my only wish, Conrad, is that you would stop suggesting more, because I usually end up becoming a faithful reader of your suggestions.

And perhaps you've also picked out my central failing as a blogger. I'm nearly always quite sleepy.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"impeti. (Is my Latin plural correct?)"

Actually, impetus is fourth declension, so the plural is also impetus.

Gawain: the gaping chasm just terrifies me. Part of me really just wants to have read everything, and then sit back and think, Ah, that's that done, now I can go into medicine. Of course, the other part of me would commit suicide at that point.

Mrs Roth Sr. said...

Well, I'm glad there's a lot of reading out there, as you'd make a lousy doctor and I do prefer you alive. You could always take up Sanskrit or the Scottish dialect in the news this week where there are only two remaining speakers. Medicine has nothing to fear.

Robert said...

I am not so lucky, taking a book to bed induces sleep in me quicker than any anaesthetic. Medical solutions become addictive and suicide to solve insomnia would be a sledge hammer to crack a nut!

Crack on with the blog Conrad it’s one of your gifts to the world.

I love old books. My favourite bookshop Beaches in Salisbury is now an Italian coffee shop, such is progress! Puddletown has one, smaller though and there is a good search service for rare books. My daughters and I found a gem of a book recently which in time will be revealed.

On a tangent, yesterday I visited my wife’s Aunt a learned academic and literary figure, an expert on Gilbert White among others.

AJS said...

As with any sculptor of words or the tangible, you must not forget the power of the subtractive touch alongside the additive. Know when to set the pages adrift on the breeze, or to toss the chisel down amongst the cruel, mocking little shards...take instead an hour of the hands of your loved ones and set out to a horizon of silence - no syllables, no hammers.

Then, when you return fully to the studio of your mind, quality will reign over quantity, and process over the product. And laugh at your chasm - rejoice in it - for without a depth to fear, few of us are ever compelled to seek the heighths.

What a pity we don't all reside in proximity of each other - to do away with this electronic world and establish a proper Salon--!

(BTW - Melatonin poses more of a risk for women, as it interferes with circadian rhythms that are linked to risks of breast cancer. Still, I would read up on the Melatonin before taking it. One of the last in my list of odd jobs was managing at a natural health store...reading on supplements so disturbed me that I happily set about as buyer for tea, coffee, and herbs (ah, saffron, lavender)...I can tell you that the melatonin capsules I was given via that employ left me extremely irritable upon waking, whereas with the Valerian, I woke refreshed.)

Blue Genes said...

If (voluntary) memory serves me correctly , Proust often resorted to valerian; so if you do go that route you'll be in good insomniac company.

Gawain said...

The gaping chasms gradually narrow (even if they do not close); and you have to leave some territory out -- this I believe you covered under your recent discussion of your attitude to an overrated Bloomsbury figure. much of the stuff just isn't worth it -- it may be important (sez who?), but what does that matter when it is not pleasant? but that's age speaking to youth -- it never works.

Teju said...

This is surprising and kind. Thank you.

Erik said...

Reading as forming the prima materia of writing, and writing as producing a sculpture - I wish I could do it that way. Let me please keep watching your sculptures. I also think that these sculptures are also vivid, moving sculptures, and not "only" essays, books, postings etc. Reading and writing give also shape to the way I deal with other people in my life, and to my choices and decisions, it makes me feel more quiet and complete one way or the other.
I have read the insomnia-comments and I must say I didn't realize how it can affect one's life. When I close my eyes I fall asleep. Reading in my bed is impossible for me. I wish I could e-mail you some of this competence, for now I realize what it means.