Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reading by Obligation, Self-Imposed. . .

Interestingly, but probably not surprisingly, my reading patterns mirror my personality as clearly as most of my other behaviour patterns. Perhaps even more so.  Duty struggles with pleasure, goals struggle against random temptations, and a certain magpie tendency dangerously melds wide-ranging interests with a desire to collect. . .

The latter tendency is more dangerous, in fact, with regards to books because whereas acquisition in other areas is restrained due to my wariness about indulging overly in consumer capitalism, my compunctions about the environment, and, most obviously, budgetary constraints, buying books gets a sort of moral Wild Card. Hey, I'm supporting writers, no? How can that be a bad thing? These days of online shopping, particularly, a review of a book in the weekend paper can mean an instant download to my Kobo. If I see a book mentioned on a blog somewhere, I Pin it to my Want to Read board and before long I'm placing an order at Chapters/Indigo (our Canadian alternative to Amazon),

Often, I must admit, I've ordered books knowing I was unlikely to have time to read them, but storing them away against the day when I would. No question it would have been wiser simply to keep a list and buy only as I had time to read, revising the list as interests shifted, abandoning those titles that no longer tugged at me so urgently. Instead, I accumulated piles of books, some of which I started, got partway into, left on the hassock in front of my reading chair or on the dresser next to my bed or on my desk beside the computer or . . . well, you get the idea.

And in the last few weeks, as Retirement becomes increasingly manifest, as I finish the last tasks associated with work and begin bringing some order to the transition from campus to home office, from a rigorous schedule to a more creatively structured one, I'm trying to organize my reading to allow for a judicious clearing up of all the unread texts while still allowing room for some of the indulgence I crave as a reward (and a reassurance, yes!) for stepping off the Career Path.

You will have noticed that my reading has skewed toward the mystery genre lately, but I'm not sure I've conveyed the guilt-wrestling that precedes each dip into the murky lives of these criminal characters and those who pursue them. I'm not sure I'd be capable of a steady diet of crime novels, no matter how well written, but I try to stave off the possibility by balancing such reading with  literary titles, with mysteries at least written in French (yes, I'm aware of the circuitous justification going on here!), and with non-fiction.

Right now, my guilt has been directing me to finish some of those books in some of those piles, and I've been working through the ones that have bookmarks already marking my progress through them. Some of these, honestly, failed to engage me much, so the reading feels an obligation rather than a delight. Others are quite wonderful, but they deserve an attention I haven't been ready to give or they simply want to be savoured, and I've been deliberately stretching them out.

Fitting into the former category (as I finally come 'round to working a book title into this post!) is David Downie's Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. Despite having a number of still-unfinished books on travel and life in, or history and culture of, France, I ordered this as soon as I read about it somewhere online. Not only did this concern travel and/in Paris, but it apparently recounted weeks spent walking a French portion of the Camino de Santiago, something I hope we'll tackle someday. Because of my interest in the topic and because I'd read and enjoyed Downie's essay on the Luxembourg Gardens in his Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, I began Paris to the Pyrenees as soon as it showed up in my mailbox. I should have remembered that although I'd enjoyed that earlier essay -- even quoted from it way back in this post -- I'd actually not finished that earlier book.

And, indeed, although I was keen enough on following Downie and his wife from Notre Dame Cathedral straight out of Paris along Rue St. Jacques, approving their decision to do a bit of cheating at the outset and begin instead by taking the train to begin in Vézelay, I wasn't too far down the road with them when I began growing restless, even irritated. Instead of being eager to sit down with a chapter or two when I got a few minutes free, I found myself beginning and finishing books from other piles. I crept so slowly through Downie's tale of skeptical pilgrimage that when I picked it up after a long stint away, I'd forgotten much of what I'd read and often had to reread preceding paragraphs to convince myself that the bookmark was in the right place. Not so surprising that I'd shift mystery novels higher in the pile, but I actually began and finished all 500+ pages of Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris while not reading Downie's memoir (and yes, Horne's was another book I'd bought a few years ago and not got 'round to -- Sue reminded me of it several months ago, mentioning in a comment somewhere that she'd just finished it).

Not that the journey Downie traces isn't an interesting enough one. It is, and there is potential in the "device" he uses, enlivening details about the route itself with somewhat amusing sketches of his marital interactions and conversations. After a few chapters, though, the device seemed laboured to me, and I grew very weary of Downie's sardonic tone. The insistence on the couple's repeated awareness, in almost every place they paused, to the previous travels of Caesar and Vercingetorix, is initially entertaining, but again, the trope becomes laboured. So does Downie's condescending attitude to the French "passéisme" -- obsession with the past -- and the distance he purports to hold from the other pilgrams and, somehow, from spirituality in general, while he nonetheless seems disappointed at the flatness he feels.

Certainly, he delivers a wealth of historical and geographical information, and perhaps I'm being nostalgic or idealistic or simply naive in craving a more engaged and engaging account of the French culture Downie and his wife meet along the way. Perhaps I've just come to the book at the wrong time, and if I'd stumbled across it without the feeling I had to read it, I might have enjoyed it more. Perhaps it simply suffers in comparison to another book about walking pilgrimages that I've been dragging out for many, many months, but savouring every word, every image, every meditation: Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways. But that's the topic of another post, coming soon, as I've just shifted that book to the "finished" pile . . .

Meanwhile, I'll stick to French/Paris memoirs and mention one more title I recently finished, Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. This was much easier to romp through quickly, with its colourful evocation of the idealistic chaos at George Whitman's famous left-bank English bookstore. Mercer's well-honed journalistic skills are deftly deployed here, and he sketches an engaging picture of the eccentric characters who staff and live at the store. Readers can't help but be entertained by the ongoing parade of mainly young, hopeful writers who took advantage of Whitman's communist principles to take "room and board" at the store in exchange for some bookstore work and a commitment to read a book a day. Mercer also takes us outside into the surrounding Paris of the early years of this century to wander through its streets and parks, sit in its pubs, cadge meals in its brasseries and cafés, and picnic by the Seine at nightfall.

He also traces the bookstore's history, beginning with its earlier, iconic incarnation at a nearby location under the ownership of Sylvia Beach.  He outlines its history as Whitman catches the baton, drawing on many hours of conversation with the then 86-year-old during Mercer's extended sojourn in the shop. In gratitude for Whitman's hospitality, Mercer combs the shop's archives hoping to find a solution to the financial threats hanging over the business, particularly in the context of Whitman's age. The glimpses he offers readers of these archives are tantalizing indeed, not only those letters and other documents that trace Whitman's move from the U.S. to France, but also the many that record Shakespeare & Company's significance in the lives of so many renowned writers throughout the years.

Time Was Soft There works well not only for its sketch of the bookstore, but as a memoir. Mercer's honesty and self-reflexivity engage the reader, and his narrative frame offers a compelling enough hook: he's quit his job, given up his apartment, and left friends and family in urban Canada after being convincingly threatened by a career criminal he'd exposed in his writing. Given that, in doing so, he'd betrayed a commitment he'd made to this source, readers will not be surprised to learn later in the narrative that Mercer betrays some immaturity at a number of points throughout. He's unflinchingly honest about this immaturity and gradually discloses a pattern of foolish choices from adolescence onward; his honesty and willingness to take responsibility for his actions redeems the callowness somewhat for me. I'd recommend his memoir if only for a glimpse inside that fascinating shop at that particular transitional time.

This post has turned into something much longer than I'd intended, and before it becomes yet another self-imposed obligation that I'm struggling to finish, let me end it here. Have you read either of these travel memoirs? Do you enjoy the genre? And if so, have you read any great memoirs lately (and they don't need to be about France) that you'd care to recommend? And a few last questions about reading in general: do you struggle sometimes with a sense of obligation to finish books you've lost interest in? or have you given yourself permission to let them go? do you try to impose some rigour on your reading or to prefer to be driven simply by pleasure? No wrong answers, of course, I'm just curious about our reading habits.


  1. I reread A Moveable Feast lately as a refresher before reading The Paris Wife. From time to time I am lured into reading something I am quite sure will disappoint me and The Paris Wife was one of those. I do feel more kindly toward Hemingway than I used to (based on the reread of AMF, not TPW). Prior to that I read Vanessa'a Sister and a biography of V. Bell and V. Woolf. Reading the 'fact' and fiction together stops me from going online every few pages to check out backstories.

    Now I am working my way through My Struggle (Knausgaard, not Hitler) and although it is classified as fiction in the library, I think it could fall into the memoir category. The only volume available was Boyhood Island and I have the other three on hold. I will be preoccupied with this all summer. So boring! So engrossing!

  2. I could have written your first three paragraphs.

    But I've finally come to realize I'm not a bad person if I don't finish a book--flawed, maybe, but not bad. I developed a love for books at a very early age and, by the time I was 10, had read every Jane Austen book because I adored the glimpse into a world so very different from my own. Would I have started reading Austen at 10 if I had felt I had to finish every book even if my interest waned? Probably not. The same held true for Dickens and a host of other classics which were the only books available in our small town's library. Reading was simply a pleasure, even if I needed a dictionary beside me. I knew I could stop, but mostly I was so fascinated I kept reading because those writers were good storytellers. In Alistair Macleod's words, I never wanted to leave them long enough to make myself a cheese sandwich.

    I think those of us whose careers involved reading books as part of our jobs sometimes forget how to read for pleasure--where all books are equals, none need to be finished, and reading is never a duty. Maybe it's time to pile a bunch of those bookmarked books next to your armchair to hold a cup of tea or a glass of wine and let them be until they speak to you. If that never happens, at least they'll have been of service.

  3. Georgia: Despite having the title urged upon me numerous times, I've so far resisted The Paris Wife -- you validate that resistance. . . A student of mine presented on A Moveable Feast this past spring and I skimmed the book again, making a note to spend more time when I can. Thanks for reminding me about Vanessa's Sister -- I'd enjoy reading it as you did, in tandem with the biography.
    I've just finished Volume 1 of the Knausgaard -- it's wonderful, isn't it? Yes, in spots the detail verges on boring and yet, yes, it's engrossing. A friend of mine observed how fascinating the technique is in that while he seems to be revealing all, there's nonetheless a tension around what is being held back. Made me think of Colville's realist paintings. . .
    Alternating Knausgaard's 4 volumes with Elana Ferrante's 4 Neapolitan novels -- you'll want those on your list!

    Marilyn, thanks for commenting. We readers all have much in common, don't we?
    I don't consider myself "bad" if I don't finish a book, although it's only rather recently that I decided my time was too limited to stick with the ones that I really didn't want to finish. I think what I've been confronting, though, in this transitional time, is a backlog of purchases that I'm owning the consequences of: Something like "You wanted it so badly that you bought it? Then make the time and take the effort to finish it.: Some books, particularly the more scholarly works directly linked to my field and my teaching, I've just admitted I won't get to, and I've passed them on to colleagues. But I have no fear of forgetting how to read for pleasure. Like you, it's been my primary motivation since I was five or six, and throughout my academic career, I continued to read, stubbornly sometimes, for my own enjoyment.
    I like your idea of using some of the titles, until I'm ready for them, to hold a cup of tea or a glass of wine. . . . I suspect a few will be put to work doing exactly that!

  4. I read a lot from early days,reading was and is my favorite way to spend my free time. I like to investigate new books,like to speak about them and am always very happy to find new authors I like. A lot of classics ( those who are older than me :-))I read very early ( we also have very good background in our schoolsystem,we were stimulated to read a lot and it was a must),so I forgot a lot. Reading again f.e. Ana Karenina,it is different when you are 15 from when you are 50,don't you think?
    Now there are so many new releases and authors that I become "reading greedy",my "to read" lists are longer and longer. So,yes,I buy a lot. It was so difficult 20 or 30 years before to buy foreign books,I so longed for it and now it is so easy,just one click and there you are!
    This is first category of books I feel obligation to reed ( but these are books I want to read and eventually would)
    My acquaintances and my friends know that I love ( yes,this is love acctually!)to read so now and then I get books as presents. Tastes are different, you know what I mean! This is second category,I appreciate their gifts and feel obligation to reed( although I shouln't!) And sometimes I let it go,if I really,really don't like it. But it stays beside me for too long. Bad feng shui!
    Third category are books slightly scientific,with small letters,big ones, I enjoy reading,want to read but they go slowly( as they should go), and than there is always something more interesting and new!
    So,I very often read two or three books in same time
    I also enjoy mysteries very much,as well as biographies,they happens in foreign countries,even in different centuries( like Ariana Franklin,there is also a fiction about first woman doctors) and I discover interesting things (and there is always a factor that the language is foreign for me)
    You asked if I liked Doerrs Four seasons. Yes,very much, I like Italy and Rome and read it after The light we cannot see ( so I like Doerr very much,too,more than Markus Zusak)
    I can imagine how interesting it must be for you- I hope,without insomnia!
    Your daughter looks beautiful,I read one post,writes very interesting(like mother)and I'm sure she will enjoy her stay there
    I'm just finishing David Jasons My life ( I bought it at Heathrow and started in a plane last summer . So much about obligations...). It is interesting,with a lot of theatre/tv british history, with a lot of actors I don't know and it is sometimes funny ( I'm afraid a lot of wordplays and british humour are wasted on me,perhaps is funny all the time :-))

  5. I have just found your blog, and what an interesting one it is. I am a few years into retirement and have been trying to catch up on all the reading I missed out on - being a full time doctor most of my reading was related to my profession and it was required in order just o keep up. Fortunately I have had the support of my son who is a literature graduate and particularly favours contemporary fiction. He regularly gives me books as gifts - but thank goodness for the Kindle as our shelves are reaching bursting point.

    The problem for me is that there is so much good literature out there, and I am not a quick reader! OK, if I am on holiday and reading under a shade for much of the day I can get through an 80,000 word novel within three or four days.

    I wonder how often you and your respondents go back and re-read a novel? I mean, we would never look at a fine painting just once, any more than we would listen to a piece of great music just once. I have just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let me Go' for the third time (although his 'The Unconsoled' is my favourite). Every time I come back to a novel I discover more and find things that I may have missed first or second time around.

    Thank again. In look forward to more of your posts.

  6. Dottoressa, your analysis of the different levels of obligation regarding our reading is so thoughtful and perceptive. This is exactly what I'm confronting -- it's not that I don't want to read the books, so much as that I sometimes feel the weight of their presence calling out... I've acquired them in so many different ways, for so many different reasons, and the pleasures of a thought-provoking work of non-fiction laying out a body of knowledge I'm not familiar with is much different than the pleasures of a literary novel that plays with style or structure and that's different again than a wonderfully rich narrative in a more conventional form, or the delightful plot twists of a mystery novel. Like you, I'm generally moving between several different books, and sometimes there does come a time when I decide I'd better hunker down and finish a few, if only to simplify my life for a little while.
    I'm not sure why The Book Thief never appealed to me (you compare Zusak with Doerr), but I'm generally leery of novels dealing with the holocaust that somehow manage wide popular appeal. .. Might be unfair in that case, but so far I haven't read it.

  7. Dr. Tegner, Welcome! and thanks for taking time to comment. I've only just retired myself, and am newly adjusting to this wide open space. As a professor (Canadian Literature) I've reread novels often, of course. Sometimes 6 or 7 times over 10 or 15 years. And Dottoressa, commenting just above you, writes of rereading Anna Karenina, the differences between a 15-year-old's experience of that text and a 50-year old's.

    I'll pose your question to my readers in a post, soon, and see what the consensus is. I know many resist rereading, feeling a push to keep up with all the texts they haven't yet got to for the first time (one of my daughters feels this quite fervidly!).

  8. Mater, yes, Colville, that's perfect! Detail without depth. Which doesn't sound as appealing as it turns out to be...in painting and in writing.

  9. I have pages and pages of lists of books I want to read, lists started in my 20's (most of those early books have been read) and still updated regularly, especially when I am feeling a little twinge of guilt about the quantity of unread books on my kindle and my bookshelves. But then, off I go buying more books. Books seem to be the one thing I give myself permission to buy on whim... and of course there are all the books I wish to reread. In fact I seem to be rereading a lot right now, even books I've just finished, a kind of "that was so good I want to spend more time with it mentality", as well as the urge to reread books first encountered long ago. Helen MacDonald's discussion of her childhood reactions to TH White, and her later, different, understand validate my interest in rereading.

    As usual, you have read several books that remain on my lists, including Horne and Donnie. Oh well. I seem to be not reading at the moment. Perhaps that too goes through cycles of intensity.

  10. Georgia, It's surprising how appealing it is -- I think because the depth is there, in our imaginations, which are stirred by the detailed weight of the surface, perhaps. . .
    Mardel, I'm the same way about permission for book-buying. And also about the cycles of reading, although I've never yet gone more than a day or two without at least a half hour of it. I sometimes think I probably should try that, just let my mind sort out some time on its own -- why must I keep it continually entertained from the outside?