150+ essays on literary topics
Like everything else that gives pleasure, reading is best done slowly. Eat slowly, walk slowly, make love slowly, read slowly.
Everyone reads slowly to begin with. When you’re learning, you read aloud (c-a-t cat) but, when you get to know the words well enough to recognise them at a glance, like old friends, you don’t need to sound them out any more and you do silent reading instead. You do it slowly at first, then more and more quickly, ignoring the words that don’t matter, registering only those that stand out from the crowd. You skim-read, you speed-read, you get the gist. You don’t say the words any more, either aloud or in your head. You know what they look like and forget what they sound like.
It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. After a while, you don’t need to think about it. A hundred years ago, riding a bicycle at excessive speed was an offence. It was called ‘furious riding’. If what we read is the road and how we read it the bicycle, furious reading should be an offence too.
Some people say that the way to re-discover what words sound like is to read aloud, as we did when we were young. But reading aloud is, under most circumstances, impractical and is generally confined, by those who recommend it, to the reading of poetry. I have tried this myself at various times in my life, but never found it satisfactory. The voice I hear is not the poet’s voice, but my own. The best place to hear the poet’s voice is in your head.
The first poet I heard reading his own poetry was Dylan Thomas. The poem was Fern Hill and the occasion was the first meeting of the school poetry society, to which the English teacher who started it brought a gramophone and a record of Dylan Thomas, whose death had occurred ten years before, reading his own poetry. It is not true of every poet, but it is true of Dylan Thomas, that his own readings are definitive. The way Dylan Thomas reads Fern Hill is the way it should be read.
This is because he knows the score in the way that a composer does. His poetry was written to be read, just as music is written to be played, but the markings are not written down as they would be in a musical score. Only he knows what key it’s in, where the bar lines come, how the tempo changes from line to line. When you hear Dylan Thomas reading his own poetry, you are reminded how much it owes to the sound of a Welsh male voice choir. He reads in a tenor voice, as if he were singing, and this is perfect for his own poetry, though less so when he uses it to read poems by other writers.
Whenever I read Fern Hill, the voice I hear in my head is Dylan Thomas’s.
Actors are usually very bad at reading poetry. They assume a character and perform the poem, as if it were a script, instead of reading it. Exceptions are rare and all the more memorable for being so. Anton Lessor, for example, who read the whole of Paradise Lost in a series of broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 a few Christmases ago. His reading, anything but furious, was a transparent medium through which the words and their meaning were conveyed. He made me feel that I was hearing not Lessor but Milton, or at least the words as Milton scored them.
If actors with trained voices are rarely successful in substituting the poet’s voice for their own, how much less likely is it that you or I should be able to do so? Reading aloud is not the answer.
Reading slowly is, because reading slowly gives you time to hear the words, and this is as important in prose as it is in verse. You hear the words, not through your ears, but in your head, where the limitations of your own speaking voice need not detract from your pleasure. The slow reader, like the unfurious rider, has time to take in the landscape, to dismount, to stop and think, to go back and start again, to enjoy words not just for what they mean but for how they sound.
The slow reader hears every word. The habit of ignoring apparently insignificant words, recognising only those whose meaning seems to matter, is hard to break. Until you do, you read like a cyclist who sees only the few landmarks that point the way or like a pianist playing with one finger. Great writers, in whatever medium they write, must be read slowly to be heard. Sitting down to read a novel should be like setting out on a walking holiday. The writer walks beside you and sets the pace, waiting for you if you fall behind, but never letting you rush ahead.
Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.
That’s Charles Dickens taking you by the arm at the start of a long, slow walk. You must fall in step with him to appreciate, not just the meaning of the words, but the sound and the rhythm.
A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.
Unless in your silent reading of Little Dorrit you pronounce every word, hearing it in your head, pausing at the end of a line to let it sink in, you will not hear Dickens’s voice. It will be the same when you pick up Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Read it slowly, so that you hear every word in your head.
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.
The habit of furious reading encourages furious writing.
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.
I leave it to you to count the clichés in the opening paragraph of this quick read, described on the cover as a literary masterpiece and running to almost a thousand pages, but a quick read nevertheless because you can skim it, as you learned to do when you stopped reading aloud, and glean the meaning from the few words that jump out and hit you in the face. You will lose nothing by doing so.
Compare it with the opening paragraph of another literary masterpiece of similar length written about a hundred years earlier on the same subject – hating and forgiving.
Though men in their hundreds of thousands had tried their hardest to disfigure that little corner of the earth where they had crowded themselves together, paving the ground with stones so that nothing could grow, weeding out every blade of vegetation, filling the air with the fumes of coal and gas, cutting down the trees and driving away every beast and every bird – spring, however, was still spring, even in the town. The sun shone warm, the grass, wherever it had not been scraped away, revived and showed green not only on the narrow strips of lawn on the boulevards but between the paving-stones as well, and the birches, the poplars and the wild cherry-trees were unfolding their sticky, fragrant leaves, and the swelling buds were bursting on the lime-trees; the jackdaws, the sparrows and the pigeons were cheerfully getting their nests ready for the spring, and the flies, warmed by the sunshine, buzzed gaily along the walls. All were happy – plants, birds, insects and children. But grown-up people – adult men and women – never left off cheating and tormenting themselves and one another. It was not this spring morning which they considered sacred and important, not the beauty of God’s world, given to all creatures to enjoy – a beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony and to love. No, what they considered sacred and important were their own devices for wielding power over each other.
It may seem unfair to compare Gregory David Roberts to Tolstoy. It would be if both writers were not, each in his own way, writing about abstract ideas and universal principles by reference to a particular situation. It would be if the publishers of Shantaram had not invited the comparison by calling it a masterpiece, a word which has all but lost its currency from over-use, but which still applies to Tolstoy’s Resurrection.
It is the habit of furious reading that makes War and Peace, Ulyssses, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Tom Jones and A la recherche du temps perdu, masterpieces that are best known for being least read. What’s the hurry? Take your time. Savour each word as if it were a mouthful of wine, an oyster, a sunset, a lover…