Friday, May 14, 2010
I’m in something of a quandary. I think I wrote the wrong book. In view of the comments here and elsewhere that I’ve received on the parts of the book I’ve posted thus far, and, especially, of some conversations with Claire, I’m feeling strongly that what I thought was one book may actually be two, very different kinds of books. I want to share what I mean by that.
“Reading to live,” as a book project, grew – as those of you have read these posts – know, out of a significant period of personal and professional crisis, uncertainty and struggle. The power of that experience and perhaps also of the course “Reading to Live” that I taught for many years at Michigan lay, I think, in its honest, open exploration of my life and of the role not only of reading but of language, text, and books in it. Sometimes, I’d come to lecture feeling despondent. I’d share that feeling and the events that I felt were prompting it openly with my students, reflect on what the reading for the week said to me about that despondence and, somewhat more generally, about feelings like that and events like the ones I was experiencing. At other times, I’d feel joyous and buoyant and, likewise, I’d try to share all that honestly with my students. I tried to find and communicate points of connection to their own life: experiences and feelings of transition, of risk, loss, uncertainty, creativity, and so on. I don’t think I ever told them how they should read or how they should live, not because of any virtuous restraint but just because I was much too absorbed in reading to live my own life.
But between then and now, that ongoing and strictly speaking unfinishable process of living, feeling, reading, and reflecting became a Book Project. Then, given my desires to be heard, and to be heard in academia, to advance my career and given what I understood it to take to do those things, that book project took the shape of something like a manual or guide to a way of reading. As I produced several essays, often immediately motivated by other topics or invitations, for scholarly journals – on Cortázar, on Felisberto Hernández, on Borges, and on Philip Pullman – I started to view these essays as expressions of that method of reading that I wanted to the book project to advance. I also started to view the gathering and revision of these essays as a short cut to the completion of that book. I pulled them together, revised them sincerely, and superimposed on them a neat (too neat, really) structure of two parts and chapter titles. I revised some more in the belief that perhaps it wasn’t a book for academics but rather for a more general readers. Always, I felt plagued by the sense (and resentful of several editors views) that my book was somewhere in between.
Yet I’m thinking now that might have been because there are two different books in that book. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think all those essays (now chapters) really belong together in a book, at least not the book I have written. The essays on Pullman, Williams, and the Korean poet Yi Saek are really just occasional pieces in which I worked out my relationship to particular texts at a given moment in my life. The essays on the Latin Americans – Borges, Felisberto, Cortázar, Arlt and Quiroga – were really part of something else. They were the outgrowth of a particular set of courses, graduate and undergraduate, in which I taught these writers, on the one hand, and, on the other, various philosophies of, for lack of a better word, immanence. So I see the very corpus of Reading to Live, at the moment, as motivated by valid but quite contingent and probably, when taken together, incoherent set of drives and interests.
Perhaps more importantly, at the moment, I see a sharp difference in approach and tone between the Prelude and the rest of the chapters of the book. The Prelude is a story, fairly honestly told about a segment of my life and the role of reading and books in it. The rest of the chapters are literary critical essays shedding some light on a particular text. Certainly, in these chapters, as I incorporated them into the Reading to Live book project, I gestured toward bringing myself and my own frail and unfinished life into the reading and I tried to press these critical essays into the service of an overarching argument about how to read and the importance of affect in reading. But at the moment that gesture and that effort feel like artifices, like a kind of surface patina laid over critical essays that weren’t really meant to be what I was asking them to be. And, at the same time, I was short-circuiting my own efforts to express what was really powerful about my experience teaching reading to live, which in some ways I enacted in the Prelude.
Talking with Claire the other day, after she had just read and said something very nice things about my Prelude, she asked me why I wasn’t writing a memoir. Not reading to live, not a method of reading, or how to book, or a self help book; not the announcement of some putatively original way of reading (as if reading to live were really an original idea), but just the story of my life in books, a reading life. The Prelude might serve as the seed ground for such a work, which would obviously be expanded, delving into particular periods of my life, and showing the joys and troubles of those times, and the role that language, text, book, and reading played in them. I was scared of the idea and resisted it at first. To begin with, I dreaded the thought that I was not done, that I had yet to start again. But, more deeply, I confronted the doubt that anyone would be interested in that story; that the story I could tell was interesting or important enough. Then I started to cry. Then I got excited about the project and lots of ideas came to me. It made me think that the course had been successful because I was living honestly and openly more than because I was teaching any explicit method of reading. I think my students had always been saying that all along. Thank you Claire, for helping me see and accept this.
A couple of days later, thinking about what was actually in the current book project, I realized that there is a book in there. But it’s a book I’d always felt loathe to write because it felt insufficiently ambitious. It’s a book about certain patterns I discovered in the writing of some Latin American authors from the Southern Cone. Nothing earth-shaking, but some solid and I think original readings of some important (and in some cases still over-looked) authors, buttressed by a philosophical commitment to an idea of immanence (drawn from Spinoza, Pragmatism, and Deleuze) and to the implications of that idea for how we understand selves, knowledge, language, affect, and ethics. Perhaps the model of criticism that Edward Said offered in his last work can help guide me in that.
So all this is to say that I’m excited to explore the possibilities of these two other books, which both are and aren’t the one that I’ve written and begun to share on this blog. I’m also a little embarrassed that this process is so rough and erratic. I’ve always resented people who ask me to read something and then, five minutes later, or a day later, whenever, tell me that they’ve already changed it up and so I should wait for the next version. I’m abashed and sorry to be playing the role of that person now. But I’m not sure if there’s any point to continuing to post sections of the Reading to Live book manuscript on the blog, though I’m open to doing so if it might be helpful to me as I reorient my efforts or because others are finding the materials helpful. So please let me know what you think about that.