Attraction is distraction. Or is it the other way around? Like so many shopaholics I can’t resist the gleaming appeal of an object, and the objects I desire most are stories, which are not tangible objects but can of course be made so, and once they are I must have them. Do you remember the part in Disney’s The Little Mermaid where Ariel has a private grotto full of junk she treasures? A conch shell; a beheaded statue of a man, thrusting a sword heroic? Like books, to Ariel these objects hold stories. Objects are so captivating, and this is why, despite owning a Kindle, I keep faithfully emptying my bank account into the cash registers of numerous Melbourne booksellers.
The pleasure of reading has, for me, expanded somewhat, given that I started a PhD this year; the come-up, as it were, of my addiction must now make room for more of itself, except that this extra consists mostly of grunt work. So much of what makes this work work is that the texts must be read without the full absorption you can surrender yourself to when reading for leisure. Research is a type of reading you cannot do in bed or on the sofa. You can’t crack the spine of research, spill coffee on it, or fall asleep with it on your chest. You can’t really make it yours until you begin to write, and so my reading practice is changing.
I’ve always known writing is a shared act—what we put out there, as writers, becomes not only absorbed but kind of recycled, altered, and stored in the grottos of other people’s minds. It’s not some kind of existential artistic truth. It’s just that now, every essay, every short story, every novel feels like research. I question every sentence with the eye of a person wielding a highlighter and a pencil. It feels as though there must be a hidden truth, somewhere, behind every single one.
The more I challenge every sentence, the more every sentence reveals. Reading Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped has not only opened itself to my challenges, but has challenged me in return; you need only scratch at the thick, sleepy prose to expose the bare horror underneath. The juxtaposition between the two is key, of course: discussing the physical and mental weight of pregnancy and postnatal depression and the social toll of both, Friedmann proffers in-depth, curiosity-driven critical thinking on topics ranging from the significance of red lipstick in readings of femininity to the depressed body’s desperate, empathetic response to witnessing beauty and grace. The book must be put down, at times, in order for the sadness within it to pass from mind.
I found a recent essay of Fiona Wright’s about the sorry state of the rental market so relatable during my own move that this catalysed my return to her collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Unlike the cover artwork on Friedmann’s collection, in which Friedmann is portrayed as disjointed, Wright stares into your eyes when you pick up the book, unapologetic. I know, both from my previous reading of the book and the book’s title, what is inside; I know, too, hunger. I know from these that her refusal to apologise is difficult, and so becomes powerful.
I first read the collection during my own period of hunger; it was a bad time to read it. Each essay felt like a reminder that my disease existed and that I was succumbing to it; I felt weak and stupid, I wasn’t ready. Reading now, the collection speaks to me in a different way, a kinder way. If the collection itself is about smallness—about, as Wright writes in ‘In Miniature’, being “never messy… [being] neat, [being] small and [being] dear”—her sentences obey. As a poet, she is practiced at questioning the significance and placement of every word; the essays themselves read trimly, carefully, frankly. The deep personal and confessional nature of the content of Small Acts adds, for the reader, a layer of hunger to the work: we want to know more, but we won’t; Wright won’t let us. Hunger is pain, and pain is messy. Poetry is small. Smallness is neat.
The book itself is small, shorter and narrower in width and length than Friedmann’s book or any other in my Currently Reading pile. It fits in my small hands, and, when I read it, Wright glares, in my defence, at the outside world. It is a physical expression of itself; it is pain and poetry made solid. It is inside and out a pleasurable object.