Fail Better, Read Better

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and On Beauty, has a two-part essay in the Guardian about Writing and Reading. This has been linked to on other blogs, but it deserves to be read.

You can read Part One here.

You can read Part Two here.

Having posted Walcott’s poem Volcano, about being an ideal reader, then seeing this essay, really got me thinking about what it means to be a good reader of literature. There are some books that I read years ago, that I did not “get” and thought the whole world was wrong to praise. I have returned to those same books later on only to be startled at my own cluelessness. Then there are the books I return to and see and experience things in them that I did not before. Then there are those that I loved and now find rather limp and even immature.

I have changed as a reader, as I have changed as a person. I do know that I’ve become a better reader. As good as I’d like to believe I am, I still feel a certain insecurity when having read a book for the first time that I have not understood it, the way I should, the way the writer meant it to be. You want to meet the writer on his or her own terms, at the same time that you want the wholly edifying broad experience that reading can provide. What happens when the terms can’t be understood or the experience is a let-down?

Just as writers write from their own perspective (“dramatising their belief”), readers read from their own perspective. Conflict is inevitable. But I don’t penalize critics like Michiko Kakutani or James Wood if they don’t respond to particular writers. I know them as critics, so I don’t have a problem with them being “corrective critics” as Smith would put it. They are articulating their specific views of art. Regardless, they can provide a good guide to What to Read. You learn to trust certain critics about certain types of books and not to trust them about others. But knowing that (knowing a critic, knowing types of literature) takes time. A lot of time. You have to practice at being a reader.

Which brings us back to what it means to be an ideal reader of literature. Which brings us to an impossible goal: but for lovers of literature a dream. It remains a dream because we can no more be an ideal reader than there can be an ideal or “perfect” book. The book you loved in high school or college or at 25 no longer fires you up the way it did, the way another book does now. The reader you were is not the reader you are now. You are now another writer’s ideal reader.

You play games, listing your ideal “desert island” books. You make them, yet acknowledge how unsatisfying the final list is, and how the list you made in your 20’s, is not the same as the one you made in your 30’s, and are sure will be different from the one you will make in your 60’s. But we do it anyway, getting a glimpse into our own tastes as readers, marking our own development as readers. Striving to understand everything a great book has to offer us about the human experience.

Read on, my friends.

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