Rekindling A Passion For Books | Pushing the Wave

Rekindling A Passion For Books

Opinion, 12 May 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
This week I will do something unusual for here: I am going to talk about books.

More than that, I am going review a few I have read recently. But first, I will discuss a little bit about reading and the role it plays in our lives.

We all go through fazes of consuming more or fewer books, which is I guess why we set ourselves challenges such as finishing X number of books per month or year. Twitter and Facebook are full of that sort of thing.

To me it seems a bit reductive and demeans the concept in my eyes. But I suppose it depends on the function that books perform in a person’s life, and one’s relationships with the objects themselves.

I remember reading the recollections of a book collector, and it struck me that, by and large, he wasn’t at all interested in the contents of the books, merely their provenance, and whether or not he could acquire them and how much it would cost him. He could have replaced books with stamps, war memorabilia or religious artefacts and the outcome, and the resulting memoir, would have been the same.

Some people regard books as wholly and sacrosanct, as if they contain the riches of the world, while others see them merely as objects, fit for disposal once the words within them have been read.

Personally, I don’t venerate books as objects, but I could never throw one away. To me they are treasure trove, and a portal to another world, or at least a different version of the one in which we inhabit. More than that, books are an opportunity, like works of art or (especially classical) music, to explore, through someone’s else eyes, our own perspective on life and our place within it.

In that way, my favourite books take me on a dual journey from the first page: one a voyage into places unknown; the other an odyssey into the inner reaches of my mind.

Of course not all books are intended to achieve that.

Some are written as fluff, as entertainment. Yet, like the best pop music, the best literary fluff shows you something about yourself. I am immediately thinking of the novels of Nancy Mitford, or of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, or Bridget Jones's Diary and The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Wonderful books all, and which linger long in the memory.

It is this need I have for some kind of illumination through the reading of books that explains why I do not, as a rule, read or write genre fiction. I realise they can be brilliant, and the best examples shine a bright light onto the dark corners of humanity, but I find that crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, horror and other types of literary genres generally leave me cold.

Of course, I went through a period of reading such books, Agatha Christie in particular, when I was a teenager, but it turned out to be a passing phase. One day, I picked up a collection of short stories by Nicolai Gogol and that was that.
But of course I haven’t read at the same pace ever since that transformative occasion. I have, much to my own bemusement, gone through fallow periods in which I have barely picked up a work of fiction from one year’s end to the next.

One particularly long interval saw me switch to magazines and non-fiction, and I lost pretty much all of my passion for being taken into other worlds. However, I didn’t stop buying books, and people continued to get them for me as presents. The result was that my to-read pile grew and grew, then multiplied into several piles, until there was a profusion of tomes, weighty or otherwise, waiting for me to pick them up.

Then, like Odysseus finally returning home to his patient Penelope, my love of fiction came back. And then I decided, for once in my life, that I would not choose books simply at random, but finally tackle some of those lauded classics that had decorated my bedside table and leaned out of my bookshelves for so many years.

I made that decision because I realised that I had been avoiding reading them.

What was I afraid of? That I would read something so good that it would put me off writing? In the same way my father had been dissuaded from pursuing creative sculpture, as opposed to making functional works, when he realised how far he was from ever being Michelangelo?

It’s silly, really, or it seems so now, to think that way, as I am aware that one can never be another writer, or write the same sort of works as them. I am myself, and capable of writing only what can flow from my pen. And anyway, what does it mean to be better or worse? It’s all rather subjective.
The sad part of this rekindling of my passion for fiction was that I was a little disappointed when I got down to reading the classic works I had been steering clear of for so long.

Take, for example, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, which is paired in my edition with A Certain Smile. The former is amusing in a sense, and that oh-so French denial of the importance of emotions and subconscious thoughts, and the exaggerated emphasis on conscious deliberation, can be entertaining, especially to non-French readers.

And Sagan captures very well, being one herself at the time, that awkward inflection point at which one finds oneself as a late teenager. But the ending is forced and disappointing, and there is a glaring, enormous omission in the story that anyone with a bit more maturity (including, I would have thought, her editor) should have spotted.

The less said about the rather boring A Certain Smile the better. To me, it seemed to be an intellectual exercise, and if it was based on actual experiences it certainly didn’t come across that way on the page.

I then turned to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle full of expectation, as I had recently read Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time and was blown away by its searing yet casual portrayal of the awfulness and arbitrariness of war. Again, I was to be disappointed. Cat’s Cradle is an empty vessel that only really fills up in the final pages. The treatment of Mona and what she represents is crude and underdeveloped, much, I realise as I type these words, like the rest of the book.

I approached Death in Venice by Thomas Mann with a degree of trepidation, on the other hand.

I was enraptured by the world he created in Buddenbrooks, but was left a little confused by The Magic Mountain. There are passages, entire chapters, that are among the best things I have ever read, and in that sense it affected me greatly. But the narrative is weighed down and sometimes near-fatally wounded by the extended discussions between the characters, even though I found those at times impressive and always thought-provoking. I wonder sometimes if he was trying to say too much.

But back to Death in Venice.

He explores an awkward topic, especially in our era, with brilliance and elan. I was deeply impressed by his capturing of the awfulness of obsession, and by the inevitable collapse of the storyline into those final few lines.

My copy also contains Tristan and Tonio Kröger, which follow the laws of diminishing returns, unfortunately. The former is clearly an early, and largely well executed, look at the primary concept of The Magic Mountain, while the latter is, I am sorry to say, an overwritten examination of an undercooked idea.

But it’s not all been about disappointments.

Other recent books have included The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, which I have wanted to read ever since I understood that Tea in the Sahara by The Police, one of my favourite pop songs, was inspired by an episode in the story. That means I have wanted to read it since I was about fifteen.

I found it to be a much more powerful and complex novel than I expected, with some indelible and occasionally shocking moments, but it is a book very much of its time, I suspect. And it is hard to centre in on the purpose of the story. That of course is not the same as the meaning of the story, which is what we impose, but rather the writer’s intention.

I found The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux to be surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable, despite its flaws, and Nana by Émile Zola was exactly what I would expect from that author: fizzing prose, fabulously orchestrated scenes, and a series of devastating semi-endings, all served up with his particular strand 19th century moralising.

Interestingly, the most compelling, urgent and vital book I have read in a long time is not a work of fiction. The Letters of Cicero, as selected and translated by L.P. Wilkinson, show the man to be fascinating, complex and clearly great, yet also vain and ultimately flawed.

The sadness of the book comes from the prior knowledge of how it would all end, which adds a piquancy to the experience of perusing his letters. But it also is the breadth and depth, and humour, of the communications between the authors of those ancient missives that draws one in and shines a true light on the times and the people who inhabited them.

But what am I reading now? Another classic that I hadn’t yet tackled but of which I am more sure will be interesting than some of my other recent reads, given how much I liked his other novels.

I am talking about Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. I am only a few chapters in, but already, despite some of the tedious posing and prejudices of the era, I have found what I was looking for: a deep and sympathetic examination of the search for inner satisfaction while facing the compromises of the external world.
After that marathon discussion, there really isn’t that much to say, other than that I added another recipe this week: Mushroom, Leek and Potato Soup. This dish has taken on many different versions over the years, but this one I like particularly. Enjoy!
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Rekindling A Passion For Books | Pushing the Wave