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The Joy of Reading and Writing

Some Notes on Reading

April 19, 1998|ROBERT PINSKY | Robert Pinsky is the poet laureate of the United States. His two most recent books are "The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation" (awarded the 1995 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry) and "The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996."

Editor's Note: The following essays by Sherman Alexie, J.D. McClatchy, Robert Pinsky, Mona Simpson and Ted Kooser are included in a recent anthology published by Milkweed Editions, entitled "The Most Wonderful Books: writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading." They are reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and the authors.

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I long sometimes for that early, ardent perception when all narrative provided one engulfing reality. In that Eden I saw little or no distinction between movies and stories in books. Neither was there any essential difference of kind distinguishing dreams from daydreams, or daydreams from conscious fantasies, or separating all those private narratives from the collectively composed dramas of kids playing Robbers or War or Cowboys: "Say, we got our guns back, and you don't see us coming." OK. And then say, "I see you from the roof." And so forth.

This doesn't mean that I was stupid or innocent. I recognized the different levels of expertise, vividness, plausibility among such different kinds of made-up story. But underneath such qualities was a single unquestionable essence: a populated, imitative reality, as seamless and coherent as the world itself. Available when the real world grew tedious or oppressive, or merely at whim, there was a reality of imagination. Genre and form did not come into it. Though one collaborated in those clumsy, derivative dramas of shootouts and pursuits, slapping a thigh while running to simulate horseback riding, the idea had not emerged that this was a particular kind of making, with an essential character different from that of Errol Flynn in "Robin Hood," which was, in turn, different in nature from a book about Robin Hood.

I know a woman who as a child used to be afraid to begin a new book. In the inert little object, in the squared-off ranks of black sentences, lay terrible power she had not elected: Within a few pages she would become subject to that power. She might start to care about the fate of a character the author could thwart, humiliate, even kill, the character a hostage not even to fortune but to the authorial need to create just that caring my friend dreaded while also craving it.

Reading at this stage is as ecstatic and unfathomably vivid as the movie screen and as inward as dreams. The film technologies of projection, synthesized sound and so forth--if I was aware of them at all--were theoretical, like an older boy's explanation of special effects, the collapsible arrow that exploded backward out of an actor's shirt simultaneously with a bursting sack of catsup. Despite the explanation, I flinched at the movie. And I think I was even more innocent, once, of the technology of narrative in words. The creation of the stories I experienced had a density I did not see through.

My favorite reading for many years was the "Alice" books. The sentences had the same somber, drugged conviction as Sir John Tenniel's illustrations, an inexplicable, shadowy dignity that reminded me of the portraits and symbols engraved on paper money. The books were not made of words and sentences but of that smoky assurance, the insistent solidity of folded, textured, Victorian interiors elaborately barricaded against the doubt and ennui of a dreadfully God-forsaken vision. The drama of resisting some corrosive, enervating loss, some menacing boredom, made itself clear in the matter-of-fact reality of the story. Behind the drawings I felt not merely a tissue of words and sentences but an unquestioned, definite reality.

I read the books over and over. Inevitably, at some point, I began trying to see how it was done, to unravel the making--to read the words as words, to peek behind the reality. The loss entailed by such knowledge is immense. Is the romance of "being a writer"--a romance perhaps even created to compensate for this catastrophic loss--worth the price? The process can be epitomized by the episode that goes with one of my favorite illustrations. Alice has entered a dark wood--"much darker than the last wood":

[S]he reached the wood: It looked very cool and shady. "Well, at any rate it's a great comfort," she said as she stepped under the trees, "after being so hot, to get into the--into the--into what?" she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. "I mean to get under the--under the--under this, you know!" putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. "What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it's got no name--why to be sure it hasn't!"

This is the wood where things have no names, which Alice has been warned about. As she tries to remember her own name ("I know it begins with L!"), a Fawn comes wandering by. In its soft, sweet voice, the Fawn asks Alice, "What do you call yourself?" Alice returns the question, the creature replies, "I'll tell you, if you'll come a little further on . . . . I can't remember here".

The Tenniel picture that I still find affecting illustrates the first part of the next sentence:

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