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?