Many people make a practice of discussing books they haven’t read. I even remember when, during the period of my summer internship after my junior year in college, in the heady caverns of a downtown-cocktail-hot-spot, I confessed to an older schoolmate that I was having trouble finishing books.
“Oh,” she said, leaning toward me in careful conspiracy, “no one finishes books anymore.”
And if I didn’t, two years later, try my hand at (and fall in love with) The Idiot, I might have really believed her. After all, there is nothing more daunting than the imperative to entertain a truly boring thing. And so it made sense: they couldn’t all be reading the many things they told me to read. I had looked at these things, and the feat of getting past page ten was a mystery and a miracle—was, at best, a testament to human will in the face of irrelevance. “No one finishes books”: it was a simple and revelatory answer.
It was also an unnerving one: it offered me no way forward; it provided only a form of quiet capitulation before a thing that I could not stand. It was a lifetime of performative moans and sighs and confection, acted out beneath a heaving, sweating mass I could not divorce. But I wanted a divorce. I wanted to know again this satisfaction I had been graced with as a child—when, tucked in some corner of my pink bedroom, I could read and read and forsake sleep and read again.
And so, despite my friend’s claims, I still tried with books: to finish books, to begin books, to climax, to moan, to feel one human thing with books. And when no such feeling came, I felt that there was something wrong with me. My attention was gone. I was a victim of my sound bite age. I could not concentrate. I could not sit still for these “luminous works”, these “tours de force” left me cold; on my windowsill, “bold entries” gathered dust. In short, I was a dilettante, I was an idiot, and I had failed. And there was a space reserved for me beneath my blanket, in the corner-most corner of my bed, where I could crumple and consider what I had at length, and despite great promise, become. But, in reality, I was searching in the wrong places—going to the same bars, as it were, to the same man, the same bed, winding up in the same position…
In matters of the mind, as in matters of the heart, discernment is essential. I had no discernment: I had leased my opinion to a coterie of critics who were not critics but cheerleaders for a dangerously circumscribed and contaminated literary culture. Why did I not read Infinite Jest? I felt that its understanding of humanity was, if seductive, also completely repulsive, and I could not give myself over to its prejudices just so that I could brag I’d gone to bed with the popular boy. I did not want to become the type of human being that Infinite Jest deemed valid, deemed actual.
Endurance is not always a good thing. To endure nonsense is not a value. And often, with literature, to endure nonsense is actually dangerous. Reading is no small act. It is a decision that must be taken seriously. What is the act of reading, but the entrusting of oneself to another? When we begin a book, we do not enter into the world as it is, but the world as an author has (according, alternately, to his wisdom or prejudice) delimited or expanded it.
In this precise sense, reading fiction is always ultimately a political act: for, as the author translates the real world into a fictive space, he also interprets that world. He tells us how and where a person enters into it, how and why that person speaks or moves. Implicit in the structure of a novel is an authorial assertion of what is and is not possible, what is and is not permissible, what does and does not qualify as real. The question posed by a basic logical scheme: What obtains?—this is one of the more important questions the author answers as he constructs his story and his characters. Whose voice, and why? And how? Whose figure, whose shadow? What’s whispered, and what’s hollered aloud? Voice, character, theme, setting, plot, pace…these aren’t mere mechanics: they are the foundational elements of an ontology. And when we immerse ourselves in a work of fiction, we release ourselves into that ontology, into that specific account of being in the world. It follows, then, that a reader must trust a writer—even from that first line and page. For we sally down a dark alley towards a stranger’s voice, and we must ask ourselves: am I walking towards a murder or a miracle?
Reading is never a momentary, temporally discrete act, because it always has consequences. It is true, of course, that we end a book as sure as we start it; but just as the cologne of a departing lover clings to the sheets, to the pillows, so, too, does the cologne of a story hang in the morning air of our lives and our respective imaginings of those lives. The relationship between an author and a reader is an intimate one, and you have to take on a new book the way you take on a new lover: carefully, and with self-knowledge—lest you find yourself (over)taken unawares. One thinks: this is just another book, another boy. But it is the quiet ones that haunt us.
Say we decide to approach books like we approach our most dearly held affairs: mightn’t we choose different books? Do we really have time for those things toward which we have no natural inclination? And though we may have the capacity to love—and indeed do, really, love so much, so many—does it not finally come down to our own choice: a choice altering so much of what our life will be, what it will look like? And do you feel comfortable, then, letting someone else choose for you? Letting someone else tell you what a worthwhile person reads, what a serious person reads, what an engaged person reads? Should we limit ourselves to the seasonal splash, the most well-blurbed newcomer, when so many beautiful possibilities exist in the eaves of culture?
In the realm of fiction, we have this gorgeous accident, this opportunity: a space where we can give ourselves—wantonly, and repeatedly, and yet deeply—to something other than ourselves. Here is a space where we can come again and again to discover a soulmate, and, so discovered, to bring him into conversation with an entire cast of soulmates, each as dear to us as the next, with no risk of harm or horror.
Fiction is not mere escapism; it is a dream of one’s self—and our dreams of ourselves yield the coordinates of the waking life we wander. Fiction, and art in general, structure our wildest and boldest beliefs about what is possible in this life. In this column, I will take you, book by book, into my own dreams of our world and our time. What do I look for in a book, in a lover, in our world? Michel Houllebecq, in his Paris Review interview, sums it beautifully when he holds Corinthians up to its humanist mirror: “Now abideth truth, beauty, and intensity; but the greatest of these is intensity.”
The Second Library is a weekly column by Uzoamaka Maduka, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The American Reader.