Reading the Nobel Prize winners and those who should have won...

Reading aid...
Over the years, I have poked around in dusty second-hand bookshops gleefully gathering "reading treats" which sit on the bookshelves at home, turning yellow and brittle. Most of these are works by the Nobel Prize winners and they have remained unread because these books are exceedingly challenging. You cannot pick them up and devour them between cooking a meal, answering the phone and trying to block out background noise. Despite the obvious fact that they remain unread for years, I am unable to get rid of them and kept promising myself that I would read them "some day". Well, it's time to bite the bullet. That day has come. But before I start, I need to clarify (mainly as a motivational exercise for myself) why I should not just begin, but let this beginning be the first step on an on-going journey.

So why should I read the Nobel laureates and other challenging writers especially since reading takes up hours of scant leisure time and a movie will dispose of the plot relating to the book in a fraction of the time it takes to read?

Well, for starters, good literature expands the mind in ways a good movie cannot. It takes me to places and times I cannot otherwise go to - the past and the future for instance. It enlarges my levels of experience, understanding and empathy by allowing me to inhabit the head space of people who are very different to myself and who are faced with very different challenges and circumstances. By engaging with fictional characters in a fictional world, on first reading one is entertained. On second reading (well re-reading --- and all interesting books that are also complex and challenging, demand to be re-read). I pick up subtleties and nuances I missed the first time round.

The first reading raises more questions than it answers and so I begin to re-read, underlining quotes, making notes, reading commentary, looking at references - reviews, academic papers, blogs, videos and films, on-line lectures, maybe a course or two -  delving deeper, conducting a forensic, doing a bit of sleuthing, having fun, learning about myself as much as about the book.

Some time ago I read an essay by Vladimir Nabokov (who should have won the Nobel Prize, but didn't) on how to read fiction.  My major takeaway from it (there were many) is that fictional works are self-contained universes that do not represent the truth (ie the social history) of a time or place. By that interpretation, Jane Austen's work does not represent a picture of Regency England any more than the "transformation" of Gregor Samsa to an insect/cockroach/dung beetle in Kafka's The Metamorphosis represents a realistic slice of life.  So why spend time on fiction, why not read histories or something practical? Something that gives you an insight into the world as you know it now? Or to articulate a question I have heard often -  in a capitalistic, individualistic, time-poor world, what is the "remunerative benefit" of reading fiction?

Well, non-fiction has its uses and merits, no doubt about that.  The benefits of reading fiction are a little less obvious. A challenging book invites you to step outside your immediate concerns, away from the limitations imposed by your body, your ethnicity, your class, your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your personality, your circumstances, your geographical location, your time, etc, etc, and for a short time escape to a different world. You return with an expanded perspective and perhaps with a creative seed germinating in your consciousness. You come back with an enlarged idea of what it is to be human (or perhaps a non-human).  There are other ways to enlarge one's perspective - travel is one, hobbies are another, almost every human endeavour is potentially an avenue for that. But reading a good book is one of the least expensive ways, both in terms of time and money and wear-and-tear on the psyche.

A good story, has a lingering effect. We are the sum of all the thoughts and experiences we have. Good literature, ie books, that don't tell one how to feel or spell out a plot or theme, tantalizes and beckons.  It lures one in into thinking about what it is the author (or is it is the narrator? or is it both?) is trying to say. Specifically, about what it all means and why it is important. In engaging with these questions, we begin to find answers to the questions that underpin our own lives. Not two-line executive summary type triteness, but a joyful, celebratory and perhaps meandering exploration of the purpose and meaning of living. That is the gift of good literature. A gift we should value ourselves enough to accept.

That said, I shall "hereby commit to reading" my first selection - El Hablador (The Storyteller) by Mario Vargas Llosa.  Stand by for more, soon....


Comments

  1. That's exactly how I have always felt about reading good literature. Thanks for putting it into words!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Edith. I plan to make a trip to the bookstore soon, based on your reviews and recommendations in http://readnobels.blogspot.com.au/

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