These days, fewer are the novels I pick up and read thinking anything other than, ‘Dear fiction, why can’t you be as interesting as nonfiction?’ Seeing how I write fiction, I’ve always claimed fiction as my first love and was quite suspicious of novelists who claimed they read more nonfiction than anything else. Now, I completely understand, as I find getting through most novels either difficult or slow-going, despite how much I may like one on whole.
Perhaps that’s precisely why I consume much more nonfiction than fiction: Nonfiction doesn’t require you to admire the whole because there is no whole (or at least, its whole is only a slice of the whole world, which cannot be captured between its two covers). Nonfiction doesn’t require you to retain every last detail to get its message, because there is no message per se, but only a topic or list of events. No matter how well written the piece of nonfiction might be, no matter how dreary or serious the subject matter, nonfiction never makes the tyrannical demands on the reader that the novel does. No biography, no matter how lofty or how innovative its subject, asks you to concurrently consider Molly Bloom’s menstruation in the last page of Ulysses with the blood of Buck Mulligan’s razor-nicked wound in the first page. No matter how stylistically dazzling, no history book asks you to follow the consciousness of a character like the looping, free-wheeling sentences of The Golden Bowl. One could list endless examples.
Since giving up fiction would cause me unexplainable guilt (and a constant sense of missing something) I find myself chasing fiction with nonfiction. One shot of D.H. Lawrence with the essays of Baldwin and Vidal. A Goethe and Coke followed by a stout letter from Rilke. A Nabokov sour with a nightcap of his Strong Opinions. Reading doesn’t only lead to more reading; it leads to many different kinds of reading. In order to make sure I’m not crazy about my conclusions concerning certain works, I read writings about writings. While some people think it frivolous to read criticism, much more, criticism of works they haven’t even read, I found myself reading books in light of their well-written criticisms.
After reading an Edmund Wilson review of a book of correspondences between two writers, I find myself immediately reserving that book from the library. The witty way in which Wilson might have written that review might have been one persuasion, but it usually has something to do with my love for or vulgar interest in one of the writers of the correspondence. Whether the correspondence is between Benjamin and Adorno, Miller and Durrell, Goethe and Carlyle, it’s usually the case that I’ve actually read one and only read about the other.
Whether through correspondences or criticisms or essays or historical tidbits, I often find clues as to which thinker most informed the thematic template of a novelist’s novel or a character’s journey, and I soon find myself enveloped in the knotty world of philosophy. As I read these thinkers and as they even go as far as to think about thinking itself, I find myself wondering in what kind of soil their vision of the world grew. This leads back to history, but a different kind of history than that which lead me simply to births and deaths, place-names and events. By taking this path, one soon comes to realize that all ways of examining a subject, whether it is a novel or a series of historical events, must provide a new narrative, a new vocabulary, in order to describe, understand or make light of it. We are given many different narratives in the form of texts, many different commentaries on those texts, and the way in which one classifies them or divvies them out results in ‘education.’ The fictive world and the real world then become blurred, for it is realized that we have only been given the tools to approach them in the same way. Thinking ‘outside the box’ while constantly important for intellectual integrity and innovation, is a constant fetter as well, for one the outside of the box in question will quickly find himself inside of a new box, or secretly belonging to an old box dressed in new tape. It’s not enough to think outside the box, but one must constantly reassess that outside with the box’s perimeters and interior.
All that to say, I find reading to be one of the single most hectic yet stimulation and exciting activities to which one might invite their senses. For those who adhere to a strict diet of one-book-at-a-time, literature is, perhaps, mostly a form of entertainment. For those of us who find ourselves reading perhaps a dozen books or more at a time, it is usually because reading is our lives. It is we who look at our lives as one book and the world as a whole collection of books. We are only part of a much bigger library.
It is not so strange to read dozens of books at once, I would argue. This is what any common Master’s course at any university would require of you to earn a degree. They would just require you to approach these books in one specific way or along one thematic track, so as to ensure your place as a functioning, utilities piece of intellectual equipment. Some of us avoid the university because of our hectic temperaments. Some of us go to university in order to have our hectic temperaments cured. Sometimes the syllabus is the best cure.
We need those willing to follow the syllabus so that the world may function properly. I’m of that more solipsistic breed who believes that some people need to follow the syllabus so that they might earn degrees and build the kind of society that will allow me to read more books. And those of us who are not following someone else’s syllabus and reading more books have to create our own syllabuses. But it is not a syllabus portioned by year, semester, county, language, profession or office. It is a syllabus of sensibility, of will and love.
How much text does one consume in a day now that we have the internet? Those with hectic reading habits shouldn’t shock people of my generation, who are not only constantly keeping up with social networking, but are spending hours on encyclopedia websites checking real facts against the potentially fake. We now have just about everything at our disposal. Much more ambitious writers and just about every mediocre one has tried to speak of the dangers of technology by using technological mediums, but that is not my place here. If the summit of your concern is to what degree a new piece of technology ‘alters consciousness’ then I can’t help you beyond your question. I’m sure everything from libraries to toilet seats to relationships alters consciousness. But to what extent are we willing cultivate our own consciousness by feeding it specific things with a project in mind? It doesn’t matter whether or not the text one reads appears on the screen or the page. But the text will be important for that cultivation.
In the end, a series of hectic reading habits form a rather ordered system of necessity. Absolutely everything read is a result of or a bridge to another thing read. This resembles state-instituted education (at least sometimes; it’s hardly beneath the state to require the reading of texts which are completely arbitrary in relation to one another). When the day comes to a close, you might review it as one small step in your rather large, ongoing education. You might have started your day reading a big novel. You might have been reading this novel for a very long time. After eating and attending to morning duties, perhaps you’ll read something else entirely on the train to work. Now that you have a tablet or an e-reader device, your reading is ten times more hectic. You probably dipped into classic, scholastic and continental writings before you even reached the door of your workplace. On your lunch break you read from a book of essays in order to stay centered and get your mind off work. On the way home, you squeeze in some reading you know you’ll never have time for. When you get home, you might attend to more necessary things: eating, studying out of books for school (required reading, perhaps, which causes interest in all sorts of non-required reading) or going to the library to reserve more books to read. After all this, you might settle down to your bed next to your lamp where a stack of books sit, and you’ll finish your night off with some light reading.
Will you finish any of them? That’s not so important as long as some of the books finish one another.