Reading sometimes feels like learning to dance by shadowing someone who already can. The first steps are without swagger, composure or balance. It’s a little too close to madness—and if not that, then childhood—to always be comfortable.
I’ve never been much of a reader. I remember the force of will it took in primary school to tick off completed titles for the MS Readathon. Each book provoked in me a kind of agony, and I found myself selecting the least taxing titles to nudge my accomplishments beyond a humiliating single digit. It wasn’t until I developed a love of words and, later, sentences, that I was able to cultivate a different and more promising relationship to books. Now, I collect things in them. Not just bookmarks, but attitudes toward the world and toward writing. I read them to collect what they’re freighted with; I freight myself with them in the process.
* * *
I’m not halfway through Midnight Cowboy. I picked it up in an op shop a few years ago and have moved house at least once since. Last time I moved, shifting my books was so tiresome I fantasised about eating through them. (If only I could shrink them, the way I’d shrunk my kitchen cupboards to the size of three packing boxes.) This would be quicker than reading, I imagine. And the books would be more profoundly changed than having merely a cracked spine and a few dog-eared pages.
Though I’ve never sought to change a book physically by consuming it, I do enjoy looking for material signs of other people’s reading. My copy of Midnight Cowboy has no pen marks, but it bears many stains, and its cover is worn down in places from the shear friction of being packed in and jostled around with other books. I’m not sure I’ll keep it. I certainly won’t pack it again to take to my next address.
It doesn’t stop with Midnight Cowboy. I’ve got a list of other books I won’t pack next time I move. I’ll have to stay put. Or read them. Only, the stacks of TBRs grow taller, and I’m not making much headway.
* * *
I’m reading beginnings. They’re so enjoyable, it’s no wonder I struggle to move past the halfway mark. I figure beginning, but not finishing, is a form of procrastination. The best thing about it is that it’s not moored to the project at hand. It can germinate new ideas.
But it’s not for beginnings that I open a book. Not for images that flare behind my eyes then disappear, leaving a sticky residue in memory; nor musical phrasing that seems to shudder my eardrum from the inside; nor conversations that carry themselves around in my head long after the book is closed. Nor even for the joy that comes from thinking through the voice of a narrator. It isn’t for this. But for the stillness, the silence that, with a book open, is inhabited freely, unapologetically. I read for the world that lives between lines of text, in punctuation and pause, in white space, in the layering of a phrase or image, which can spark here humour, there worry, and here again exhilaration.
This part feels more like winning than madness. Though there’s nothing to suggest these two things can’t be done simultaneously. Both, after all, sit at the extreme end of a notional scale that compares one with the rest.
* * *
Unfinished projects pile up, they topple over. Tracy K. Smith, Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes and Ocean Vuong: they’re all stacked on the headboard of my bed. It’s disconcerting to see so many American authors piled above my pillows. Though David Musgrave is there alongside Maria Takolander, two op shop finds with disappointingly few annotations in the margins. I’ve started them all, and finished none (yet). This has nothing much to do with them and very much to do with me. Though I don’t suppose that’s ever reassuring for anything on the other side of a flagging commitment. (Or is it dedication, this reluctance to let go or put to bed?)
* * *
When face masks were mandated in Victoria, I learned I’ve been relying on lip reading and facial expression to listen to people. In lieu of access to a face, I’m teaching myself the syntax of body language. I’ve been reading gait, posture, gesture, and the curvature of eyebrows. It’s a surprise to encounter such a vibrant population of people well-versed in the physical syntax of microaggression—’what a ridiculous word and how accurate it is!’ says Margot in Mary Gaitskill’s This is Pleasure. Still, the degree of error is larger than I would like. And subtle tones such wryness and deadpan are hard to pick out from a body.
* * *
I’ve been reading about English grammar. I’d gotten well into middle-adulthood without realising that there are verbs and then there are verbs, and distinguishing between them makes all the difference to the sanctity of a sentence.
* * *
In the middle of Victoria’s lockdown, I joined a couple of friends online to share and chat about poems. If anyone heard me speak, they might think all poems are about the one thing. Clearly, I get stuck on the same questions, which, no matter how many times they’re answered, are never answered to my satisfaction.
Compare Pablo Neruda’s ‘Emerging’
A man says yes without knowing
how to decide even what the question is,
and is caught up, and then is carried along
and never again escapes from his own cocoon;
and that’s how we are, forever falling
into the deep well of other beings…
with Jane Hirshfield’s ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy’
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.
Okay, so it takes some mental effort to get there. But surely there’s something shared in here about the absurdity of naming and knowing and language.
* * *
Elizabeth Jolley is always a favourite op shop find. This year I read The Orchard Thieves. Each character is narrated with the dignity (and indignity) of a definite article: the aunt, the grandmother, the middle sister. Here’s a sample:
The grandmother told him that she did not mind the word ‘senile’. There were words far worse, she said, terminal, for example. Some days, though she did not speak of this, the grandmother woke early and immediately began to feel afraid of her own old age and all the things which might be wrong with her; splayed fingers and the ridging of the finger nails could be an indication of something hidden in her person.
Hard not to love. I would happily sit here and copy out the whole book for you just so you could read it too, if you haven’t already. The Orchard Thieves, I think, is one I’ll carry with me a while longer.
* * *
One of the troublesome side-effects of not finishing is not learning how to finish. You could spend forever beginning and never get around to the next part of the story—the plateau or the downhill run. (Though it’s not exactly that all stories are shaped like hills.)
I like poems because their structure is all there, on the page—visible and yet packed with complexity. Because of the line breaks, stanzas and rhyme, I sometimes think reading a poem is like piecing together the bulk of a thing from a stack of transaxial planes.
Quite a few years ago, I met a fellow traveller on a trip to New York. He was an avid photographer. He showed me images of dragonflies created from a collage of focal planes, piled up afterwards so his subject might come into focus. I was intrigued by the delicacy of their wings.
Poems have that same intrigue; they draw attention to the beauty of the bits that make them fly.
* * *
Panic comes in increments on nearing the upper word limit. It means … a home-bringing is needed. I return to the local op shop, finally open again after months of lockdown, and pick up a few new projects to add to the headboard. I am delighted to find a second-hand copy of Neruda’s Canto General with a hand-written poem on the back page. What else is a back page for but a new ending?
My story is this: there is a full stop after the terminal sentence. And then another. Then another.
Kristen Tytler is an aspiring writer, studying professional writing and editing at RMIT. She is interning with Meanjin and has edited the What I’m Reading series in the second half of 2020.