Half in praise of reading
Golden Hill author Francis Spufford on the pleasures and pitfalls of immersing oneself in a fictional world
The other side of fiction’s loan of wisdom is the fact that the knowledge it brings is not necessarily transferrable to the realm of experience. Photograph: Getty Images
One way and another, reading takes up so large a share of my existence that I have to praise it. It is what I know best, it is what I know how to do best, and the riches it brings me are always under my eye, undeniable. I know that the discoveries I make as I read are real and substantial, and so I insist that my switchback progress from left to right, left to right, left to right along lines of printed prose, represents a genuine mode of experience, whose integrity I have to defend if I’m not to be untrue to the hours and years I’ve spent engaged in it.
This makes me, on an instinctive level, reading’s advocate. I’m in favour of it for myself, and I’m in favour of it for other people. Whenever I hear about another child converted by J K Rowling to the joys of story, I can’t help but be glad. I know what’s in there, and I want other people to have it too. But I have found that there is an ambivalence in my perception of it which demands acknowledgement too. Taken seriously, every quality in fiction that makes it powerful seems capable of being taken another way, not as revelation, but as revelation’s cheap substitute. With that doubleness in mind, I found I couldn’t write – or couldn’t only write – a celebration. The best I can do truthfully is a kind of balancing act: half in praise of reading.
To start with its greatest power: fiction builds bridges between people. To know someone is not a straightforward act. It is to enter into a mutual negotiation, to find a way through the crusts of opacity represented by all their differences from us, and there is always the consideration that a person may not wish to be known. He or she may look back at us and form a judgement in the negative based on whatever degree of success they have had in decoding us. Tact, empathetic imagination, desire, and the other tools of connection, remain complex things even if they are in successfully workaday operation. If instinctive even, still complex, because of the multiple codes they must furnish translations between.
When a fruitful foray across the space between selves is written down, it becomes permanently available. It adds to fiction’s great, cumulative effort to do justice to selves not our own
Fiction has the power to lift our gaze beyond our own particular set of categories, because it preserves those acts of understanding that have succeeded. All but the most consciously momentous conversations vanish into breath and oblivion, but when a fruitful foray across the space between selves is written down, it becomes permanently available. It adds to fiction’s great, cumulative effort to do justice to the selves not our own, in which (as Dorothea famously recognises in Middlemarch) “the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference”. So books are tools of understanding. From a book you can borrow percipient powers you lack yourself. You can take up a greater intuition about motive or a more unwavering compassion as if they were prostheses.
From a book, too, you can learn people beyond the scope of your single, limited life; people you’d never meet. A book is a great liberator from the tyranny of given circumstances. The propagandists of the Enlightenment said that the free flow of writing would expand human sympathy beyond the local cramps of prejudice and limited vision, out of the choking hands of kings and hierarchs. And they were right: it is an essential function of writing that it widens our vision beyond the evidence of our own senses. This is why a novel is often the fastest guide to a country we know nothing about. Read Marquez, and you receive a vivid intelligence of Colombia. Read De Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Sciascia’s Day of the Owl, and you take the royal road to knowing Sicily. Not its dimensions, exports, geography, economics, train timetables – though that kind of knowledge accretes from novel-reading with surprising density – but its typical forms of human encounter. The novelist took them for granted, since the novel was written from within the culture it described, yet they are sufficiently explained for the stranger-reader in the process of articulating them on the page.
Some cultures, some novels, are much harder to enter into than others, but every book can be read by everyone who can read, and there is always some gain in comprehension. Of course you to have bring sufficient emotional experience of your own to the reading. Probably, the more perceptive you are in life, the richer your reading will grow. But the kitty of understandings necessary to crack the code of writing in a minimal way is not large, and you still gain an extraordinarily intimate access to people whose living counterparts would never be transparent to you. You can shadow the thinking of a Berber chieftain; a Japanese department store lady condemned to bow at opening elevator doors; an Appalachian miner; a primary-school teacher in Dundee. You can read them without necessarily having an inkling (fatally textual word) how to “read” them off the page.
For the other side of fiction’s loan of wisdom is the fact that the knowledge it brings is not necessarily transferrable to the realm of experience. The world is not narrated as you pass along it. Compared to fiction it can seem unlabelled. No authoritative voice tells you what the person you’re talking to is thinking. Consequently, as well as a supplement to our real knowledge of other people, fiction can also offer a substitute. It can be used as an alternative to the work of really knowing people. To a certain kind of reader, like myself, it represents a permanent temptation to bypass the difficult process of getting sustenance from human encounters. After all, you arrive at the same place, don’t you?
But maybe not. Maybe the means whereby we come to knowledge of other people in the world are indispensable sources of that knowledge’s strength and value. Perhaps the friction of meetings, the meanders of a friendship, the sudden demolition of a tower of supposition, the resistance of a hostility, the transit through a personality permitted by some specific act of trust, love’s opening of the membranes of private memory – perhaps all these textured efforts are more than processes. Perhaps in themselves they constitute a dimension of understanding, because all those negotiations actually map the other self we’re approaching. With each motion they tell us that the other person is there, and how they are there.
Some novels do enact this resistant journey to understanding, whose qualities condition the understanding arrived at. Proust wrote characters who have to be attended to at the pace of experience. But it is much more usual for novels to name the difficulty of judging people than actually to recreate it. Most fiction exploits the power to move between selves without any resistance at all, making many characters in turn the centre of perception, laying out many points of view. Long before the reflex shots of cinema, novels could cut like lightning between the marquis looking at the waiter and the waiter looking at the marquis. This is an essential freedom of the form. But again though, it puts it in the power of a reader who is so minded, to use novels to circumvent the drudgery (and the reward) of striking out into the world as we all do in life from our one centre, our single lifelong point of view.
I always feel that a book has a kind of inner seal that has to be broken, like the drum-tight circle of waxed paper inside the lid of a jar of instant coffee
Take what happens what you stop reading. When you begin a book, your adaptation to its world is usually gradual. You have to learn its rhythm, you have to feel your way in. It would be a rare book in rare sync with a reader that absorbed you instantaneously at the first words. I always feel that a book has a kind of inner seal that has to be broken, like the drum-tight circle of waxed paper inside the lid of a jar of instant coffee. For the first ten, or twenty, or thirty pages, I’m still reading tentatively, like someone tapping on the paper seal; only then does the novel truly come open. But at the end of a book, however well prepared you have been for the ending by the down-shifting cadence of the narrative, the text simply runs out, and you find yourself for a minute still in the emotional state the book has aroused, without the book to sustain it. It’s then that the difference between the two states of reading and living becomes palpable as a sudden contrast.
Sometimes it can feel like running off a cliff in a cartoon: your feet keep pedalling until you notice there’s no ground beneath them. Sometimes the scrim of the book – which has been between you and the input of your senses – thins and fades patchily, a tapestry becoming a veil in places, then scrubbing away altogether while other parts still linger, so that you see the real face of someone in the room with you appear through the persisting green and gold of a heraldic forest. Sometimes, though the scenery of the story is quite gone, its mood or tone persists and alters how you see your exterior surroundings; and the people in them. Sometimes the dominant perception at the end of a book can be that the world contradicts it, or exceeds it. A very cerebral, abstract fiction, far from imposing a tracery of pure idea on your vision, can make all that you see and hear seem intensely particular and vivid. Or if you are rebounding from some story whose characters have had to obey a demanding set of manners, if it has been hard to imagine controlling your elbows and your language in a text’s genteel ballroom, then what’s real can proclaim a kind of lumpy Rabelaisian assertiveness. Elbows do rest on tabletops, you remember: whoopee cushions are bought, dogs attempt to have sex with the legs of respectable strangers.
The most common aftermath for me has been a feeling that the world simply contains less than the book. I get a hangover, not a glow
But the most common aftermath for me has been a feeling that the world simply contains less than the book. I get a hangover, not a glow. Instead of an elated confusion of real people with characters, I get a disappointment that real people are not characters. That their behaviour is not plotted. That you cannot have the quick flush of unnegotiated knowledge of them. That no selecting intelligence is pruning their qualities to produce a consistent effect.
When I read the obituary of the historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett, I remembered the morning after a night I spent in 1990 or thereabouts with one of her books. The light was grey in the room. Dawn had come on at the same rate as the London traffic noise increased, as if someone were pushing up a slider switch controlling several of the urban elements together. On the floor by the ruptured sofa, my ashtray was full. I had the taste in my mouth and the quiver in my brain of the twenty cigarettes I’d rolled since midnight; rolled steadily, smoked steadily, as I moved through the long book at steady high speed, polevaulting across each duo of pages and taking in the text between whole. Dunnett’s world absorbed me, but she wasn’t a descriptive writer, as such. She never created a past that took hold as a persuasive environment. Rather than any shimmer of silk or thump of believable floorboards in the year 1460, she offered the labyrinthine behaviour of macchiavellian heroes. She constructed Renaissance demons of subterfuge to a patented plan of her own, by breaking – habitually, continually – the rule of narrative which states that in circumstances of mystery the reader should be supplied with all relevant information, so you can at least have a try at working out what’s going on. Dunnett deliberately withheld basic plot details, putting the reader into the same position of thwarted dependence as her heroes’ entourages, or the women who loved them. Her endlessly-drawn-out, opaque situations secreted for the reader a powerful set of emotions in the key of frustration. Those were what constituted Dunnett’s characteristic world.
And they stopped. I stopped. I levered myself off the sofa, with the sensation that my mind had been used to plant, grow and harvest a crop of passion, and then been burnt-off to stubble. Now it felt scorched, like my palate from the smoke. I fancied something sweet to eat, suddenly, to fill that space. They sold doughnuts at the newsagent’s. I drifted out of the house and up the street on unstrung legs. People were going to work, the side streets carrying little tributaries of commuters toward the bus stops. My drift took me across the main current, flowing into central London. But I didn’t feel it; it didn’t pluck at me. The grey of the light extended to the humans. They looked hollow, artificial, incomparably less alive than the inhabitants of a fiction. I could tell from the sample I saw that nowhere in the whole waking, moving city would there be anybody walking whose face conveyed the organisation of a plot. Nobody would give me the story’s tug on my glands. Logic said that these faces all fronted experience more complicated than narrative, but that seemed like a statement of chaos to me: and not a loud overwhelming chaos either but a chaos of vanishingly faint signals, dimming towards entropy. Luckily there was an apple doughnut in the chill cabinet, my favourite. Twenty minutes later I was asleep, curled around a bolus of carbohydrate.
This extract is taken from True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford (Yale University Press, £20)