Writers on readers

Mario Vargas Llosa on readers and reading:

“Madame Bovary doesn’t read masterworks. She reads … pulp fiction. That’s what she reads: pulp fiction, love stories, very banal, very superficial. But these stories disturb her profoundly, because they give her the idea of a very different kind of life. A life of pleasure. A life of romantic deeds. A life in which women become heroines, martyrs. Romantic martyrs of love.
And so what does she do with all this? She does exactly the same thing that Don Quixote does when he reads chivalry novels. He thinks life is like life in chivalry novels! … In the case of Madame Bovary it’s tragic.
We admire Don Quixote because he doesn’t accept the world as it is. Well, I think that is the function of literature: to make us desire a different kind of world and to create in us a kind of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. I think this is a very important function, because this gives you a kind of motivation to act for changing things, for transforming not only the society but moral values, cultural values.”

Harper Lee breaks a 40-year-long silence and writes a letter for Oprah’s magazine on how you acquire the reading habit:

(From The Independent): “Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn’t know how?” Lee begins her handwritten letter. “I must have learnt to read from having been read to by my family.”…
Lee says by the time she started school at the age of six, she had already consumed all manner of fiction, history and newspaper reports. “Why this endemic precocity? Because in my home town, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often ­ movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here and the Depression.”

In this piece from the NYT’s Writers on Writing series, Leslie Epstein describes how re-reading Proust became, eventually, a return to writing:

I would read through the three volumes two pages at a time, not more, not less; and I would do so the last thing each night. The trouble with Proust of course is that you are always losing your way: the parentheses don’t close, the verb can’t be found, and the key pronoun crouches in the proliferating subordinate clauses.
“The hell with it,” you say and push on through the blur, a headache gathering at the corners of your eyes. But reading à la Épsteîn means there is never more than a page to go. Parse Proust’s paragraph, untangle the syntax (to discover that the knot was often not in his text but your cortex), and the colored stones in the kaleidoscope have fallen into place. There is no better way to prepare for an adventure with time than to make a simultaneous commitment of five minutes and five years.

When Amos Oz was twelve-and-a-half, his mother, Fania Mussman, killed herself. He writes about her suicide and her life in Tales of Love and Darkness; one of the many ways in which he chooses to remember her is as a reader:

“But when the flat was perfectly tidy, the washing up was done and the laundry had been folded and put away neatly, then my mother curled up in her corner and read. At ease with her body, breathing slowly and gently, she sat on the sofa and read. With her bare feet tucked under her legs, she read. Her back curved, her neck bent forward, her shoulders drooping, her whole body shaped like a crescent moon, she read. With her face, half-hidden by her dark hair, leaning over the page, she read…”

Fania’s depression and migraines increased, and finally she was sent on the family doctor’s recommendation for a fortnight’s rest in a sanatorium in Arza. She read from morning to evening; at night, the insomnia sent her back to her books.

“She read Maupassant, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gnessin, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Chamisso, Thomas Mann, Iwaszkiewicz, Knut Hamsun, Kleist, Moravia, Hermann Hesse, Mauriac, Agnon, Turgenev, as well as Somerset Maugham, Stefan Zweig, and Andre Maurois–she hardly took her eyes off a book for the whole of her break. When she came back to Jerusalem she looked tired and pale, with dark shadows under her eyes, as if she had been living it up every night. When Father and I asked her how she had enjoyed her holiday she smiled and said: “I haven’t really thought about it.”





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