Pleasures of Reading

My enduring fascination with literature

I've been a keen reader ever since I was a teenager. I remember work experience at a small village library where every lunchtime I would run down a hill to a bookshop that sold classic literature at a pound per novel. I was sixteen at the time, and can vividly recall the shelf in my bedroom creaking under the weight of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and dozens of others. There are certain books from this period of my life that profoundly affected the way I think and feel about myself and the world around me.

Whenever I look back on the books that stood out most, from Albert Camus' The Outsider to Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, I'm filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia. And it's a joyous feeling. These were books in which I could recognize something of myself, and find characters to identify with. It was comforting and exciting at the same time, and I don't think I'm exaggerating when I suggest that the foundations of my character may lie somewhere among these tatty old paperbacks. (Life never does more than imitate the book.)

I often wonder what it would be like to return to some of these novels now that some time has passed; there is a gulf between the person I am now, and the person I was when I read them - even if it is only the space of five or six years. It's an ambition of mine to return to some of my favourite books every ten years or so to see the ways in which my perceptions of them will evolve. I think it would be interesting to evaluate the changes that take place.

In 'The Pleasures of Reading', J. G. Ballard begins with the novels he treasured as a young child. There is no doubt that these stories exercised a profound influence on his imagination, and created lasting and memorable images that persist within him to this day. And yet, for Ballard, thinking about the books he devoured as a child brings more wonder and excitement than the original text ever could. Speaking of his experience, Ballard suggests it is as though the stories 'have long since left their pages and taken on a second life inside my head.' This is undoubtedly one of the major problems of revisiting a book from one's childhood or adolescence: just as there is a disparity between the present reader and the past reader, there is a gap between an original text and one's memories of it.

There are certain books that I feel I can never re-visit as a result of this tricky problem, and yet there are others for which the exact opposite applies. J. G. Ballard has on more than one occasion voiced regret about the fact that he read so much during his teenage years; he recalls that like many people of his generation, his 'reading of the great works of western literature was over by the time [he] was twenty'. And while this voracious appetite for literature surely has its benefits, there are many works, he suggests, that have suffered from this approach:
'In fact I now regret that so much of my reading took place during my late adolescence, long before I had any adult experience of the world, long before I had fallen in love, learned to understand my parents, earned my own living, and had time to reflect on the world's ways. It may be that my intense adolescent reading actually handicapped me in the process of growing up [...] That same handicap I see borne today by those people who spend their university years reading English literature [...] before gaining the experience to make sense of the exquisite moral dilemmas that their tutors are so devoted to teasing out.'
During my teenage years I read hungrily in my spare time, and studied English literature at university: I have no regrets. But I can understand Ballard's point perfectly well. It is the reader that brings meaning and significance to any given text, and one can only take out what one puts in. And so to read The Brothers Karamazov as a teenager is a different experience to reading it as a septuagenarian.

But, handicap or no handicap, I cannot imagine myself resisting the books that interest me until I achieve some hypothetical position of wisdom and hindsight. If the books I read make me the person I am, then abstinence may prove to be a handicap in itself. I remember Salman Rushdie's introduction to Samuel Beckett's Trilogy, where he speaks of the grip literature held over his salad days:
'When I was a college student, browsing in bookstores was meat and drink to me. I never studied English literature but, loving books, plunged into libraries and bookshops like a starving man, gobbling up whatever came to hand. I went on long idiosyncratic reading jags, experimenting with literature's mind-altering effects at a time when many of my contemporaries were fumbling with other, less verbal, keys to perception's doors.'
I do not think that an exposure to complex and challenging literature will impinge a teenager's development; I think it is rather a question of negotiating that which is obscure or oblique, and taking from it what one can. I've encountered a number of tricky and cumbersome books in my time, and there are large passages in most of them that have completely passed me by - I'm completely oblivious to their meaning. There are other, less complex works that are written in a subtle and nuanced way I am not yet ready to fully appreciate. But this is what inspires me to return to the books that interest me most.

In an episode of Seinfeld entitled 'The Ex-Girlfriend', George attempts to convince Jerry to collect books from his ex-girlfriend's apartment. Jerry is bewildered by George's persistence, and cannot understand the seemingly arbitrary attachment he has made with these essentially inanimate objects: 'What do you need it for after you read it?' After finally regaining possession of George's books, Jerry asks a question in passing: 'Have you re-read those books yet, by the way? You know the great thing? When you read Moby Dick the second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends.'

It's easy to see the absurdity of a book like Moby Dick fundamentally altering its narrative from one reading to the next. Anything that we consider to be a classic is often hailed for its static, unchanging nature: we cling to it precisely because it is certain never to change. We cling to favourite books from our youth for a similar reason: they appear to offer us a static foundation on which to build, and to trace the development of our characters. But in fact each re-reading brings a change in our interpretation, and each encounter with the same text gives a snapshot of our development at any given time. It's always changing; always evolving; and for me, this is what makes rereading certain books a sometimes exciting experience.

In 'Memories of James Joyce', J. G. Ballard relates that 'Ulysses opened my eyes to an infinitely richer and more challenging world [...] But Ulysses overwhelmed me.' Once again there is a suggestion that reading such a meticulous work so early was a mistake; but Ballard goes on to admit that the book's influence convinced him to abandon his medical studies and pursue a writing career. Ballard closes by saying that he had reread Joyce's colossal tome once again quite recently and was 'even more impressed than [he] was forty years ago.' Time and perspective changes everything.

I am currently twenty-two years old, and have recently read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I wonder what I will think of it ten or twenty years from now, and I look forward to finding out.