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Notes on Reading

by Jonathan Galassi


The bookcases in the upstairs hall of my parents' house contained books that had belonged to my mother's parents. I spent a lot of time poring over them, memorizing their titles, without ever really reading them. I remember heavy volumes in illegible German script (my grandmother, whose own grandmother had been German, had at one time been a German teacher); two copies of The Beloved Returns; The Brook Kerith; A Smattering of Ignorance by Oscar Levant. The elaborate faded bindings of sixty years ago conveyed enormous authority.

In the living room were some of my father's parents' books: a few picture books about Italian art, turn-of-the-century English and American writers about Italy. Some of these contained underlinings and notes in my grandfather's precise, elegant script-a kind of precursor of my own father's beautifully modulated and regular hand. I remember the spikiness of the Milan cathedral and the spicy smell of foreign glue and paper.

In my father's den were his law books, Whittaker Chambers's Witness, and his leather-bound prize books from school, mainly Romantic poets. Back in a closet, some racy wartime paperbacks, which were brown and powdery at the edges; they seemed to be literally burning up. Elmer Gantry had a garish, leering, cartoon-like preacher on the cover.

My parents' bedroom had old bestsellers like King's Row, and some that weren't so old, like Peyton Place. I switched its jacket with the jacket of The White Hills-whatever it was-and read peaceably in the living room. Dr. Theodore Van de Velde's Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique was another discovery. On a small hanging shelf were some smaller books: From the Terrace in paperback, an Everyman Edition of Religio Medici (a college textbook of my mother's?), and a one-volume paperback edition of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying which I tried (unsuccessfully) to read in seventh grade. The first in a long line of abandoned books.

My first year away from home, at age fourteen, I caused a minor furor in the family by relaying my great enthusiasm for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which I not only read but listened to on records. After it was suggested that this sort of thing might be too advanced for me, there was worse commotion when I wrote that I felt I was old enough to read whatever I wanted. My brother, who was still at home, reported with righteous indignation on the trouble I had caused at the dinner table.

My other high school enthusiasms were somewhat tamer (though not reported on). I adored the sensual intensity of Le Rouge et le Noir, and I still think of Stendhal as one of the greatest of novelists. Also Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas-a pretty predictable adolescent vein-and Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return. Somewhere during those years I discovered poetry, though it wasn't in English class, where we had to memorize Tennyson's "Ulysses." It may have been in Latin, reading Virgil and Horace and trying to decipher the dirty parts of Catullus.

The books I remember loving in college were Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Berryman's Dream Songs, Howl, more of Horace, A Passage to India, Elizabeth Bishop, The Education of Henry Adams. I remember the excitement I felt seeing some of Lowell's Notebook sonnets in successive draft versions and understanding that there was process in literature, something I thought more about when I studied Curtis Bradford's Yeats at Work. Then there was Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey and the universe of Bloomsbury and biography. If poetry is "deep gossip" as Liam Rector claims it is, biography and autobiography describe its fascinating surface. Gossip of almost any kind is one of life's real joys.

The deepest reading experience I've had was studying the Divine Comedy several hours each morning, a canto and day, hunched over the books. The only thing that has come close was reading Anna Karenina in a small bedroom in a household where no one else spoke English, one of those few ecstatic occasions when I've been able to abandon everything to the life on the page. Unfortunately, I've found very few books that have this power. I'm very chary about giving myself up to a book and often nibble at it a long time before deciding whether or not to commit myself. I feel guilty when I don't finish a book, but this happens more and more often. Most books are only intermittently involving now. And perhaps that's all we can ask.

My reading is an index of my self-discontent. I have a friend who has an immense library, far too large for his apartment, who seems to have a compulsion not simply to read, but to possess what he reads, to ingest, to conquer culture. I envy the territories that are his, what he must be that I am not, when I see what is on his table and walls and floors. I'm not sure whether I envy him the books themselves or the fact that he has actually read many of them. Reading is a vocation, and though reading is, for me, also a profession, I don't really have time anymore for this calling in my life. My shelves are full of unread books. Is that as it should be? Which would tell me more about me: what I've read, or what I haven't?

Nothing makes me happier than finding the book that will draw me away from dailiness. As a "professional" reader, I have to program myself to stay on the surface, not to lose myself in the subtext I'm considering. When one is reading as a teacher, on the other hand, the correspondences and relationships that often remain subliminal when one is reading for "pleasure" become paramount. This kind of reading, if the work is worth it, is thrilling.

As I look at the shelves of the books I've edited, the ones that bear re-reading, the ones that may be read in the future, spring out toward me. There's no substitute for the sense of discovery one has reading something that seems really new. I will never forget the look of certain manuscripts: the way the poor typing made the letters uneven; the writer's special sense of spelling; the finality and permanence of those oddly-shaped, casually presented words. It's as if they themselves knew they already had another life beyond their material existence as marks on a page. It hasn't happened often, but it does. One can be discouraged thinking about how narrow a swathe most of these books cut when they were first published. But they're not made for immediate consumption, much as writer and publisher want it to be otherwise. They need to mature; growing into that other life of theirs takes time. And by then the author has often lost touch with his creation. It's not his any more.

The ideal reader has nothing to do with the "profession" of writing. He comes to the book for what it can teach him about his own life, about life. But whether this species is a dying-or dead-breed can't concern the ideal writer, who himself has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of an audience.

 

Jonathan Galassi is an editor at Random House and poetry editor of the Paris Review. His translation of Eugenio Montale's Otherwise: Last and First Poems appeared last fall. (4/1985)


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