Saturday, May 1, 2010

More pleasure (please)

by Michael

In the fall of 1991 I stood in a stairwell in New York City and talked with a friend about the death of pleasure reading. We were graduate students, studying literature, and my friend announced that graduate studies had meant he could no longer lose himself in a book, no longer give himself to it completely. I was angry. What was he saying? That the pleasure that had driven us to study books in the first place had died because we’d studied them?

Well, that would suck.

So, I denied it. I first denied it outright, saying that despite the eye-blearing hours we spent researching and writing I still got the same pleasure I’d ever gotten. When that didn’t sound convincing, I tried another approach. I said the pleasure had just changed: you know, while I no longer relaxed and enjoyed losing myself in a plot, well, now I enjoyed tearing my hair out as I struggled with a difficult new theorist . . . or enjoyed scribbling annotations in the margins of the Sunday paper because I’d suddenly become unable to read ANYTHING AT ALL without marking it up, writing back to it, dissecting it.

All right, I had to admit that I’d lost something on my way to understanding books the way a professional critic does. Maybe I’d lost a lot.

Eventually I got used to the loss, though, and felt that the gains I’d made compensated for it. If you lose one of your senses, the other four get more sensitive, right? If you lose your left leg, your right leg gains strength.

But it’s foolish to expect your left leg to grow back. You do what you can to get used to the absence, to make it work in your favor, but you don’t expect to wiggle your missing toes.

So, I was surprised when I started to recover simple reading pleasures and more surprised by what caused the recovery. It happened when I started writing mysteries. When I wrote my first manuscript I did so because I was trying to create on the page the same kinds of pleasures that I once had felt – and that I still almost sensed when I was reading books by writers like Raymond Chandler: sensed at a remove, the way one might feel pleasure in a phantom limb. My first attempts at mystery writing, which were deeply flawed, sit in a box now (and will remain there unless I find occasion to use some of the bits that do work), but through these attempts I found the joys that I thought were gone permanently. By learning to write what I wanted to read, I rediscovered the pleasures of reading.


Meredith Cole said...

I'm so happy you've rediscovered the pleasures of reading, Michael! It's so difficult to lose yourself in a book when you're used to dissecting them, but a great story can still suck me in (and I'm very happy about that as well).

Michael Wiley said...

In the poem "Tables Turned," Wordsworth says, "We murder to dissect." I've always been suspicious of the idea: it seems to me that we also dissect so as to give life. But if dissection might mean more life for others, it does mean death for the specimen at hand.

Gabi said...

That's inspiring and comforting, Michael. Although I didn't lose my love in the science of dissection, I've been missing my leg, too. But like you, I feel it sometimes unexpectedly, unfathomable. Most recently, I returned to reading children's books. My childhood best friends. And like Linus' favorite blanket, I found, fleetingly, the comfort of a good read.

Michael Wiley said...

Interesting about the children's books, Gabi. As a father of three youngish children, I'm used to reading more children's books -- and getting those moments of pleasure that you mention -- than any other kind.