Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I Read

I posted the other day on my own blog about dialogue and why it’s not my favorite part of a work to “read.” I respect the role that dialogue needs to play in the entire storytelling experience, but for me the greatest joy in reading comes from discovering beautiful, poetic language and imagery, which is most often found in descriptive passages, or sometimes in action scenes. I’ve read quite a few books where I didn’t care much for the story but just loved the language. White Oleander and Blood Meridian come to mind. I’ve also read page turners where the story was so good I could hardly bear it, even though the language was not terribly lovely or memorable. Misery comes to mind.

But the works I treasure most, the ones I pick up for inspiration for my own writing, or just to enjoy the way the author’s words roll off my tongue, do two things. They tell a compelling story, and they do so in language that has the ring of poetry in my ears. Listen to Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard.

“Rock, and snow peaks all around, the sky, and great birds and black rivers—what words are there to seize such ringing splendor? But again something arises in this ringing that is not quite bearable, a poised terror, as in the diamond ice that cracks the stone. The brain veers; the sun glints like a weapon. Then Black Canyon writhes and twists, and the Crystal Mountain looms as a castle of dread, and all the universe reverberates with horror. My head is the sorcerer’s skull cup full of blood, and were I to turn, my eyes would see straight to the heart of chaos, the mutilation, bloody gore, and pain that is seen darkly in the bright eye of this lizard.”

The first time I read those words, and many times since, I felt a chill curve its way over my scalp, leaving goose bumps behind. That frisson is why I read. Words are often said to be a dim and weak medium by which to capture reality. Perhaps that’s true. But they can capture beauty. They can create worlds and images that burn and ache in our minds. And, if truth be told, reality is in our minds anyway. The only way I can recognize the real world outside is when it leaves an impression on my mind. Words, and the images and feelings they convey, can be as real to me as the stone that cracks my windshield or bruises my heel.

James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Catherine (C. L.) Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert Howard, Loren Eiseley, Samuel Delany, Cormac McCarthy, Heather Gladney. These writers, and many more like them, are bards and poets both. They tell us great stories and they do so in a language and rhythm that is like the finest works of music, language that rings like wind chimes.

Listen to Ray Bradbury talk about “October Country” and try to tell me you don’t love it, or that it isn’t “real” to you.

“…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.…”

So, why do you read?


David J. West said...

Sometimes I read to gain knowledge, but even then it goes farther if the author has an ear for poetic verse.

And of course I read for the sheer enjoyment, the transport to another realm, vista's both beautiful and cruel, glimpses into what is and what could be.

Lana Gramlich said...

You know, Charles, I never really considered the rhythm of prose until I met you. Thanks for that.

Randy Johnson said...

I've never considered it in this light before. I've always read for sheer enjoyment, to be catapulted to worlds I could never reach these days, whether it be Burroughs' Barsoom or L'Amour's west.

the way you phrase makes me realize the same thing: all those descriptive passages are what put you in that other world.

Nothing like it and I often want to strangle people who utter the phrase, and I've heard it more than once, "I haven't read a book since I got out of school."

They know not what they miss.:

G said...

While growing up I had no friends to speak of, so I would read for hours just for the sheer joy of escaping into another world.

As I grew older my reading habits changed. I went from reading for escaping to reading for knowledge to just reading for the joy of being entertained.

Sometimes what I read comes vividly to life as I make my way through a given book. On those occasions, that book will stick with me for a greater period of time than anything else.

Personally, I don't think a writer's particular prose moves me as much as the overall content and/or flow of a story does. I mean the prose can be fantastic and descriptive as all get out, but if the content is somewhat droll, dry and/or flat, that book will not be read to the very end.

the walking man said...

I used to read for the story. The movement caused by the words and the way they were placed on the page in front of me. At one time I spent every moment not driving, working or dealing with life matters (parenting such as it was) reading. Wanting to finish whatever as soon as possible to get back to the book.

Then I got serious about my own writing and now I find myself reading modern works to dissect the technical aspects of the writing.

Why this word not that, why this length sentence when it could be written as descriptively this way. I find myself always asking as I read what level of education is this author writing to?

I think in my personal reading habits this is why I have for the past few years shunned most modern authors and have returned to "literature." 19th century writers if I just want to sit and enjoy a story. Their use of language is quite different and I don't try to dissect it, though I do enjoy it.

sage said...

I need to reread "The Snow Lepoard." I read it in the early 80s and have been haunted by a desire to travel that part of the world ever since... I enjoy good prose--Norman Maclean also comes to mind

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, gaining information or cool bits of knowledge is a big heaping of gravy on reading. I love that part too, but it’s not the underlying source of the sheer enjoyment, as you put it so well here.

Lana Gramlich, and to think, as a kid I often said I hated poetry.

Randy Johnson, oh I know. I’ve heard people say that about not reading with pride! As if they had finally gotten away from wasting their time.

G, if the prose is really good I’ll read to the end anyway, but read it slowly, a bit at a time. The story has to be good too to really sweep me away.

the walking man, I can really enjoy the rhythm of older style writing. It has a different pace but still can enrapture.

sage, I know. Reading the Snow Leopard made me want to go to Tibet. If I’d not been in the throes of settling into a job I might have just picked up and gone. I’ve got to check out Norman Maclean myself it sounds like.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I read works by Preston & Child and Timothy Zahn for the fast pace of the action.

Anonymous said...

You'be created a thing of beauty while writing about things of bauty on the printed page.


Heff said...

I read because it's nice to occupy your time on the commode.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I was listening to my second Taleran book today and I thought the action was really fast paced. I was kind of happy. I do think action scenes can have their own beauty.

Ivan, thanks. I really appreciate that. I knew you would apperciate the lovely prose

Heff, so you're a closet reader. A water closet that is.

Natasha Fondren said...

That's beautiful! Especially the passage from October Country. I confess I'm more of a dialogue reader. ADD has gotten worse with age, and the more solid lines with no breaks, the more I skim. It has to be incredible writing to pull me into thick prose.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha, we are on opposite sides of the fence there, but that's OK. Different strokes for different folks.

Liane Spicer said...

Lovely examples, Charles.

I read for both story and language. When a great story is told in great language, ahh. Bliss. I find excessive use of dialogue off-putting, to be quite frank.

Writers I've read in recent years whose use of language stopped me in my tracks: Arundathi Roy (The God of Small Things); Yann Martel (Life of Pi); Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God).

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read because people/characters interest me. And because I love words, especially the perfect word. And because I love to travel to new places.

eric1313 said...

I still read for the enjoyment of it, mostly, for the story being told and observation of a work of art is secondary. But secondary does not mean a poor second. I love to really get into a piece and read it multiple times. Any truly great work of art will reveal some new detail or nuance each time you revisit it. That's what I like about returning to an older one that I ave read already, to see if it lives up to the test. Some things do not, and some things are better the next time through and some rare pieces get better each time I read it. It's those gems that make the process the most fun of all, of course.

I read when I don;t know what to write a lot of times. Great writers read lots of great literature... so perhaps it would help me as well to follow suit. Always try to learn something from every experience, that has helped me more than anything over the years.

Shauna Roberts said...

I read to experience other places, other times, other lifestyles.

That's why I rarely read books set in present-day America, unless a friend has written them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane Spicer, oh yes indeed. To have both the story and the language. That is truly heaven.

pattinase (abbott), the ability to travel and see other places through the writer’s eyes is part of that language experience for sure.

eric1313 , at times I do just want the story, but when both cylinders work together is when I’m truly in hog heaven. I don’t often reread works, although I did with The Snow Leopard and The October Country. I do catch nuances every time, though.

Shauna Roberts, I’m kind of the same way, but I like books even set off the world, in a completely made up world. But yes, I don’t read a lot of contemporary thrillers for much the same reason as you.

Steve Malley said...

I often think about my next book while I've still got one in my hand.

I need to know where the next book is coming from.

I stash books around the house, the office, the car-- all so I won't be caught without a book.

I hide the amount I spend on books from friends and family.

I start climbing the walls if I go a whole day without reading.

Treatment might help me quit reading, but I don't want to stop!

Safe to say, I read because I have no choice... ;-p

AvDB said...

As a child it was friendlier inside of my head than outside. I read because I could stay lost in my own mind for hours. Even now, in times of stress, I retreat to books for comfort. But, as a writer, I'm finding there is not as much delving in and losing myself as there used to be. Even when I read with the intention of learning absolutely nothing, a sentence will eventually catch my eye and I will pause and go back to dissect its structure, or admire its beauty, or try to figure out how to apply its grace to my own work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, I do most all of those too, although I do tell Lana how much I spend if she inquires. She's what you call an enabler.

Avery, in my favorite books I spend quite a bit of time savoring a sentence or a paragraph. I'll think how they make me feel. I just found a bunch of such lines in some Loren Eiseley poetry I was reading.

Charles Gramlich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laughingwolf said...

great samples, charles...

i like to be ambushed when i'm reading, something totally unexpected, whether in a single line, a paragraph... or over many pages - well-honed words can do that

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, that's a good way to put it. That kind of surprise is very much fun and a real pleasure.