Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Notes on Reading

My short shelf of Virago Modern Classics and Persephone Books.

Reading is, to a certain extent, a solitary activity. When the boys were younger, I read aloud to them, and after their bedtime I often read aloud to Clara while she knit. I read all of Bleak House aloud to her, and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and two or three Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. But most of my reading is done silently, the words on the page quietly transforming themselves into worlds within my head.

I like to read novels by twentieth-century British women, such as the novels reprinted by Virago Modern Classics and Persephone Books, two important British publishers of women's fiction. It started, I suppose, when a girlfriend in college introduced me to the novels of Virginia Woolf. It was intoxicating to have that feminine stream of consciousness fill my head, giving me at least limited access to an experience very different from my own. But later, as a stay-at-home father and "homemaker," I also came to identify easily with the domestic concerns that are often so prominent in women's novels.

I published an article a few years ago about the popularity of the "girl's book" Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm among male readers in the early twentieth century. Mark Twain and Jack London were both fans of the book, but many other grown men wrote fan letters to the author, Kate Douglas Wiggin, expressing their love for her book and for the character of Rebecca. In the article, I speculated that, in reading about an appealing female protagonist, these men hovered somewhere between identification and desire. They wanted to be Rebecca, but they also wanted to have her.

I suppose, to be honest, there's an element of that tension when I read women's novels. The author's female voice fills my head, and the book becomes the body we share. But there are times when, like the character in Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode," I want to get into the story and rescue the protagonist from awful men who can't understand her as well as I do. I, the reader, am the one who listens to her and knows her heart.

So, reading isn't so solitary after all. There's an intimate relationship between the reader and the characters, between the reader and the author.

At the moment, I'm in the middle of Nina Bawden's novel Walking Naked (1981), which is available in a Virago Modern Classics edition. I came into possession of this novel because another member of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing had an extra copy that she was willing to give away. I requested it, and a few days ago it arrived in the mail. Somewhere in Texas, Christina is reading her other copy of the novel. We don't know each other, but as we read Bawden's novel, we're sharing the same life. That's the great thing about literature. It provides common ground, even when that ground is foreign to our own experience. It can take us out of ourselves into unfamiliar territory that reading makes our own. It's a solitary way of connecting to other lives, of expanding one's sympathy, of becoming more in tune with all that's human.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Rob:

I like Jim Harrison in part because his female characters are so finely drawn. Indeed, he writes in the first person as the title character in "Dalva," which I think is fascinating.

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