On reading and the joys of patient storytelling -- An incomplete essay

I’ve got a case of textual compulsion, I’ll tell them when they inevitably come to cart me away. I only wish I had the words when I was younger, when I would get lost in the words of others – not because my intention was to ignore my family or friends, but because the pages bound together inside the various hard and soft covers strewn haphazardly about the floor, on the shelves, and in the closet of my childhood bedroom bore keys to secret places and magical worlds where the improbable was the norm, where the norm seemed unimaginable, and where an author’s quotidian noticings of a piece of paper, pane of glass, or sounds of water splashing from an afternoon swim infused my adolescent melancholy with near-idiotic giddiness. It would be incomplete to say that I defined myself through my reading, although that statement, however trite, was true. No, it was more than that, more than stories and word paintings as a mere escape from reality or as the original Second Life. Rick Moody’s definition of textual compulsion comes close:

“it’s a joyful and exciting thing when you’re in the midst of it, textual compulsion.
true textual compulsion is that there has to be that element of sacrifice. Are you foregoing food and social relations? Are your personal relationships suffering? Are you going to read these books more or less sequentially?”

From my earliest memories, as a child and into adolescence, reading was an act through which I embraced the words and their creator (or perhaps their curator); the author was never far from my thoughts: where did she sit or stand or lounge when this image came into her mind? Was the story waiting for him or did he find his way into it? Who does this character remind her of? Was Kansas or the 7th century or a pair of green shoes or a windy day particularly important to him? Did she experience a moment like the one that Berger describes when a scattering transforms into a meaning-full constellation: “At a certain moment -- if you're lucky -- the accumulation becomes an image -- that's to say it stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence.”

I was seven or eight years old the first time I selected a book for myself beyond the bins of books in the classroom. We – that is, my fellow classmates and I – had been escorted to the library by our teacher. (And if I am remembering correctly, this is our second grade teacher whose hair was never anything but extravagantly voluminous.) While most had chosen a book and were either sitting and reading or talking quietly with each other, I had wandered over to an unfamiliar section where the bookcases were higher – six shelves instead of three. This memory, true or not, is held in my mind’s eye much like a rubbing made from a stone carving or sculpture – textured, tactile, a once removed representation of the thing, a new thing itself. This differs from another reading memory in which I am performing my first solo read aloud of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” a couple of years earlier for my uncle who was visiting from London; this is my parents’ story, my uncle’s story, my grandmother’s story and has become a part of my mental memory box as part recall and part verbal reconstruction of the retellings of others. Charlotte Linde, during a talk she gave at Teachers College a few years ago, said of this very notion that “Our story exists in the memories and narratives of others.” And they in ours.

But that afternoon or morning in the library, Carolyn Keene felt like my own discovery and the adventures of Nancy, Bess, and George were mine to explore, free from the expectations of others. I have a constructed memory of the forest green, linen book cover with fraying, slightly yellowed corners and pages that were not pristine – evidence that more than a few someones before me had thumbed through them. Holding the book, I remember turning it around in my hands, already convinced that it would be my check out for the day, and opening to the back – not to the end of the story, an action I regard as wholly unholy within the covenant between writers and their readers, but to the inside back cover where a small, manila colored pocket had been affixed, inside of which was a white, lined card onto which names and dates had been written and crossed out with some ceremony. It’s one of the things I miss in this era of digital downloading (a club to which I happily belong). No longer are we privy to the glimpses of the lives a book was enmeshed in for a while before coming into our temporary guardianship. And it is perhaps why visiting used bookstores sparks in me a familiar sense of possibility of what might be found inside, on the shelves and table, inside the pages, tucked into book jackets. (We may never really know the secret lives of books.)

The relationship is an intimate one, between reader and writer. Amelie Rorty assumes as much in her essay “The ethics of reading” when she implores us, as readers, to consider the author’s house – a magnificent image as ever there was one for visualizing the structural integrity of words and their foundations into and out of which stories are written – in how we read a text. We are meant to investigate a text, not merely to “get the information” but also to consider how it is and was located in the life of the author, and to conceive of the author, therefore, as situated in the world. Answers to the many questions that Rorty invites us to consider in her essay are not meant to be definitive; hers is not advocacy for navigating “text complexity” – rather, we are meant, as readers, to render visible  to fall into as it were – the beauteous complexity of texts. Can there be anything more revealing than the words of others? The ones that find their way to the final publication draft no doubt had countless antecedents. And to find wordsmithing that evokes joy, wonderment, and a desire to reread even before the initial read is complete – how can such discoveries lead to anything but textual compulsion?

In his essay, from which I quote above, Moody was referring directly to the work of W.G. Sebald. Since first reading a few pages of The Emigrants online, at the suggestion of a colleague, I have been transfixed by Sebald’s writing. I can’t yet say with any degree of eloquence or articulation exactly why this author’s words stay with me long after I read them, and now I cannot separate the reading of his words from the extensive readings of the man; the story of his stories invite this reader in more fully, with a wide embrace. In the film “Patience (After Sebald)” by filmmaker Grant Gee, more of these authorial layers are lifted ever so slightly to allow glimpses of the author’s multiple and varied situatedness. Gee intentionally stacked his interviews with artists and in so doing created a filmic narrative that foregrounds Sebald’s artistic craft. (A favorite image is one that a colleague of Sebald’s constructs as he recalls the author’s practice of taking photographs with highly precise lenses, taking them to be developed at the local pharmacy, Boots, and then copying them again and again, sometimes literally taking an eraser to the copies in order to create just the right amount of blurring; with both images and words, Sebald artfully obfuscated even as he explicated, offered rich description in order to unsettle a reader’s complacency.)

And it was Sebald who led me to “Open City,” a book by Teju Cole that has come to be so much more than a title on my “already read” list. I have reread this book in its entirety and again in parts several times over since first learning of it through pure serendipity: a search for something Sebaldian, while I was participating in my colleague’s summer seminar in which we pored over and read closely several of Sebald’s works, yielded a list of reviews of the then-recently published Open City. What first caught my eye were the consistent comparisons made about Cole to Sebald. Having had an intense introduction to the latter, I was compelled to read the former. That simple decision, to read a book, brought me into an already-happening dialogue that the book's narrator, Julius, was having with the imagined reader (or perhaps with himself). Reading Cole, like Sebald, was a welcoming experience -- even as they offer new intellectual tributaries to follow, their prose also pulses with tropes that, while seemingly familiar, resonate precisely because they are largely unexplored. Reading their words was very much like discovering a secret that begged, at once, to be closely guarded and also to be shared with the world. As a reader, I had a full sense of belonging. I daresay in their words – words that journeyed far to bring the world nearer  I found a home. learned quickly, however, that it was I who was on a journey that was far from being over; whatever this was, it had barely begun. Textual compulsion was reincarnated in this moment and led to an experience of heightened awareness about myself as a reader; the lives of those who storied with grace, with measure, and with nuance beckoned through their words. And each of these authors is careful with his words. That’s not to say that their writing is guarded or distant – in fact, quite the opposite is true. The narrative in Sebald’s The EmigrantsAusterlitz, and Rings of Saturn and Cole’s Open City is unhurried, attentive, embodying what Cole himself has described as a “breathable” quality. In these texts are orchestrations of words about the lives and worlds of selves and others that reflect a deep listening to the intermingling of souls. 

A kinship relationship emerges in the work of these writers that is bound by patient storytelling and Cole and Sebald are forever linked in my mind as one led me to the other, and then back again. And so it has continued this past year as their literary conversation – as Julius talks with Max Ferber, as Austerlitz makes meaning of Cole’s small fates – plays as a nonstop reel in the backdrop of my mind while I have found my way to Kiran Desai and Muriel Barberry and Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth Bowen. Sebald’s Campo Santo moved me to read Nabakov’s Speak, Memory, and Cole’s essays – among them, his views on Aciman’s Essay on Elsewhere and more recently on Ondaatje – have furthered my journey down, up, through, and around the proverbial, even Rilke-esque, rabbit hole. And in each instance, with every textual encounter, despite what may seem like an underlying narrative of reading voraciousness, these literary perambulations have remained, as the content may suggest, unhurried and unfolding. Patience in storytelling gently demands the same of readers. (Can we allow ourselves to be patient readers?)

How, then, do some words and prose become the ones we carry with us, in ways that they become part of our waking hours and penetrate our dreams? I’m not sure entirely, but the following passage from Jens Brockmeier’s essay on memory and Sebald’s Austerlitz suggests a place to start that inquiry. 

"No doubt, Austerlitz demands a serious reader who follows attentively a meandering syntax without clear paragraph structure, a peculiar mixture of the narrative voices of the protagonist and the narrator, several layers of free indirect thought and discourse, and wide-ranging associative chains that encompass extensive accounts of very speciļ¬c details that may or may not contribute to a labyrinthine plot, if we can call it a plot at all. But my sense is that this book is puzzling not only because of its demanding narrative composition but also, more importantly, because it offers, in an unusual, perhaps unique way, a new view of memory and the autobiographical process."