Culture & Conversation

You Are What You Read

I vividly remember the first time I consciously read a book on my own, at the tender age of seven, and the feeling of ecstatic excitement that this act instilled in me.

I see now what it was about reading that grabbed me—it showed me that the world extended beyond my own reality. This was infinitely exciting for me as a young girl, for it was in completely in line with my own wicked imagination.

When I read a well-constructed piece of writing I pay attention to it, I engage with it, I am wrapped up in it and carried away to another realm—the realm the writer has created. I feel strong emotions as the storyline develops, I am drawn into the narrative and identify with the characters, I try to surmise what will happen, what will unfold.

When I read a good book I become oblivious to the world around me, utterly focused. Then when the story reaches its conclusion, I slowly return my awareness to my surroundings, although the energy of the story may remain with me.

Considering my deep love of literature, and considering that I plan to write about books on this blog, I would like to start off by confronting some issues I struggle with regarding literary criticism.

There is a trend on the internet lately with critiquing that I don’t like and that I don’t think is useful or helpful for either author, critic or reader. What I’m talking about is writers who shit-talk other writers just for the sake of shit-talking or for the sake of getting more hits on their page.

Lets face it, readers are drawn to conflict and drama (why else would we read?), but I think that the critic that plays into unfair, negative reviews is abusing the readers desire for such a thing.

On the other hand, I also see the complete opposite—reviews that glorify for the sake of glorifying, or for the sake of pleasing editors or publishing houses.

All this to say that I get nervous around the idea of literary criticism.

I want to pave my own path with this blog, on my own terms. I want to use my energy writing about books that I choose to read, not necessarily the books that I am expected to.

To have the ability to read is to have the ability to choose what you read, and I think that the role of the critic has gotten tangled in what one thinks they should be reading or what one thinks they should be feeling about the work. I never feel like I am truly experiencing a book when I am aware that I am going to have to write about it. I prefer to read in an open state of mind, apart from judgement.

I was supposed to review Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz for this blog. I managed to read half of the book, after putting it down and picking it back up a dozen times. It didn’t grab me. It was ok—in the sense that it was well written, but it didn’t captivate me in any way or make me want to read on.

I don’t have the right to say anything more about the book since I never finished it, but I think that my not wanting to read on isn’t a result of the actual book itself, but rather the pressure I felt to cover it.

While her book garnered positive national coverage this month in The Gazette, The National Post, The Star and the CBC, the expectations for The Rover to cover it amplified. Simultaneously, my desire to cover the book weakened, and thus instead of another book review of Nawaz’s book, I have instead chosen to write about the books that I personally chose to read this month.

HARUKI MURAKAMI :: NORWEGIAN WOOD (2000)

Haruki Murakami

One book I read this month was Haruki Murakimi’s Norwegian Wood.

I had picked the book up from Drawn & Quarterly last spring, while actually seeking to buy Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World.

I had started reading Hard Boiled Wonderland as a free PDF I got online after being recommended Murakami by my dear friend Guillaume Morissette. I had read merely 150 pages, and then insisted I finish the book in its physical form.

Since D&Q was out of stock, I picked up Norwegian Wood. I started it, read maybe 50 pages, then put it down. What I had loved about Hard Boiled Wonderland, its delightful surrealism, was nowhere to be found in Norwegian Wood.

However, I recently picked the book back up off my shelf and gave it another shot.

The story takes place in Tokyo in the late 1960s and circulates around three characters—the protagonist Toru Watanabe and his two love interests, the emotionally troubled Naoko, and the outgoing, lively Midori.

I enjoyed reading the book, but its effects didn’t dawn on me until hours after completing the novel.

I was lying in bed talking with my boyfriend when the story re-entered my mind. It’s as though the story transcended its logic and hit an emotional response within me. I, at once, consciously understood the paradox that had rendered the narrative. I understood that Murakami had written a story that demonstrated that life can be both brilliant and devestating at the same time—that brilliance and devestation can become one, separate, then become one again. That life can be both blissful and painful all at once. I was extremely moved by the story.

What Murakami managed to teach me with this book is that stories, if properly planted in the readers mind, have the ability to stay with us—a tattoo of the mind and heart.

MIRANDA JULY :: IT CHOOSES YOU (2012)

It Chooses You

An author who consistently makes me feel a myriad of emotions at once is Miranda July.

I was recently leant July’s newest book, It Chooses You, and finished it in a night. I simply couldn’t put it down.

I had attended and wrote about July’s launch for this book a couple years ago, which was hosted at the Ukranian Federation, but had never actually gotten around to reading it until recently.

July is the woman responsible for the films Me, You and Everyone We Know and The Future. Her book, No One Belongs Here More Than You, is a collection of short stories that many young writers I know, including myself, cite as being a huge influence on their work.

As seen in the titles of merely all her major works, July is fixated on the ‘You.’ It’s clear in her work that she truly wants to understand and reflect the people and world around her, and it’s this that draws me to her work.

It Chooses You, July writes, is an experiment in finding out how people are making it through life and “the trappings of time.”

The book is a creative non-fiction narrative that traces July’s journey into strangers’ homes through answering ads in the Pennysaver, the local classifieds in Los Angeles.

I worked a call centre job for two shifts earlier this month. To say the least, I hated it. As a result of having to talk to strangers over the phone all day, I began to have Miranda July-like fantasies.

“I am just calling today to tell you that you are wonderful and that there is no one else like you in the entire world,” I wanted to say to the person on the other end of the line, or “What was the happiest day of your life?”

The thing about It Chooses You is that it made me acutely interested in strangers. When I was a kid I was always told not to talk to strangers and this always baffled me. I understood that my mother was just trying to protect me, however, through talking to strangers, as July shows in this book, we are able to not only learn things about them but also learn more about our selves.

What I find myself most interesed in when it comes to writing is a certain mode of sincerity. The structure of feeling that the story operates on is what I’m seeking when I read, for that’s what I respond to most powerfully in literature.

To be sincere is to write the way you think and to say what you mean. To be sincere is to operate on a level of necessity. This is the difficult task of the writer.

July is one of my favorite contemporary authors because she is smart, senstitive, and her body of work challenges the expectations of being writer. She goes beyond what is expected of her.

July has this transcendental quality to her work, which comes from a place of deep empathy and compassion. Her work makes you feel good, it makes you see the world in new ways and it makes you laugh. What inspires me beyond the stories that July writes is the woman that she is.

 

ANAIS NIN :: JOURNALS (SIXTH EDITION: 1955-1966)

Anais Nin

Aside from Murakami and July, I absolutely loved reading Anais Nin’s journals this month. It fascinated me to read her journals in a time of the Internet, where writers, if they so choose to, can live and share their existence in real time.

Nin’s journals span more than 60 years, beginning when she was only 11 years old. Nin was aquainted with many prominent authors, artists, psychoanalysts and other figures and wrote about them often.

I loved reading, first hand, about Nin’s insecurities and fears about sharing her work. I think every writer struggles with this notion of ‘putting themselves out there’ and I think that the more someone puts themselves out there the more leverage there is for the reader to feel connected to the author or protagonist of their story.

 

JOAN DIDION :: THE WHITE ALBUM (1979)

Joan Didion

The last writer I had the chance to read this month was Joan Didion. Both Nin and Didion are/were prolific writers and reading them has inspired me to continue to write everyday.

Didion is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for awhile and I am happy I finally got around to reading her.

First published in 1979, the book records the upheavels and aftermaths of the infamous 1960s.

I came into the possession of The White Album after raiding the bookshelves of the new Arbutus Records office. The White Album is a collection of essays that range in essays about The Doors, the Hoover Dam, Malibu Beach, Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the shopping mall, and others. What Didion does in The White Album is define mass culture and give us an emotional lens in which to understand it.

 

RAINER MARIA RILKE : LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET (1984)
Letters To a Young Poet

I just finished reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In it, I stumbled upon some noteworthy segments regarding what I brought up at the beginning of this article—literary criticism.

Rilke writes that the act of reading allows us to become “more grateful, and somehow better and simpler in one’s vision, deeper in one’s faith in life, happier and greater in the way one lives.”

As for the critic, Rilke deems them useless: “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of apprach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch them and be fair to them.”

I think there are two types of critics, the ones who seek for the flaws in writing and the ones who seek for the triumphs. Both flaws and triumphs are present in merely everything we read, but it’s what you choose to focus on, or how you manage to balance them, that make the critique what it is.

As Rilke wrote, “Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person, it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.”

While Rilke is writing specifically about romantic love in this passage, I think it can also be applied to the relationship between critic and writer.

While I want to remain critical of what I read, I also value the importance of human compassion and empathy. I realise that books can only take us to these ‘vast distances’ that Rilke spoke of, but only if we are open to listening and trying to understand and relate to them. I am willing to listen. I want to understand.


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