Photo by Nadja Spiegelman.
Reading is at once a lonely and an intensely sociable act. The writer becomes your ideal companion—interesting, worldly, compassionate, energetic—but only if you stick with him or her for a while, long enough to throw off the chill of isolation and to hear the intelligent voice murmuring in your ear. No wonder Victorian parents used to read out loud to the whole family (a chapter of Dickens a night by the precious light of the single candle); there’s nothing lonely about laughing or crying together—or shrinking back in horror. Even if solitary, the reader’s inner dialogue with the writer—questioning, concurring, wondering, objecting, pitying—fills the empty room under the lamplight with silent discourse and the expression of emotion.
Who are the most companionable novelists? Marcel Proust and George Eliot; certainly they’re the most intelligent, able to see the widest implications of the simplest act, to play a straightforward theme on the mighty organs of their minds: soft/loud, quick/slow, complex/chaste, reedy/orchestral. But we also cherish Leo Tolstoy’s uncanny empathy for diverse people and even animals, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyricism, Colette’s worldly wisdom, James Merrill’s wit, Walt Whitman’s biblical if agnostic inclusiveness, Annie Dillard’s sublime nature descriptions. When I was a youngster, I loved novels about the lost Dauphin or the Scarlet Pimpernel or the three musketeers—adventure books enacted in the clear, shadowless light of good and evil.
If we are writers, we read to learn our craft. In college, I can remember reading a now forgotten writer, R. V. Cassill, whose stories showed me that a theme, once taken up, could be dropped for a few pages only to emerge later, that in this way, one could weave together plot elements. That seems so obvious now, but I needed Cassill to teach me the secrets of polyphonic development. In her extremely brief notes on writing, Elizabeth Bowen taught me that you can’t invent a body or face—you must base your description on a real person. Bowen also revealed how epigrams can be buried into a flowing narrative. She said that in dialogue, people are either deceiving themselves or striving to deceive others and that they rarely speak the disinterested, unvarnished truth. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw showed me how Chinese-box narrators can destabilize the reader sufficiently to make a ghost story seem plausible.
Sometimes I read now to fill up my mind banks with new coins—new words, new ideas, new turns of phrase. From Joyce Carol Oates, I learned to alternate italicized passages of mad thought with sentences in Roman type narrating and describing in a straightforward manner. To me, the first half of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow shows how far prose can go toward the poetic without falling into a sea of rose syrup.
Each classic is eccentric. Samuel Beckett is both bleak and comic. Karl Ove Knausgaard is both boring and engrossing. Proust is so long-winded he often loses the thread of an anecdote; too many interpellations can make a story nonsensical—and sublimely interesting, if the narrator possesses a sovereign intellect. V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival is both confiding and absurdly discreet (he doesn’t mention he’s living in the country with his wife and children, for instance; nor does he tell us that his madman-proprietor is one of England’s most interesting oddballs, Stephen Tennant). I suppose all these examples demonstrated to me that any excess can be rewarding if it explores the writer’s unique sensibility and goes too far. The farthest reaches of fiction are marked by Cărtărescu’s monumental Blinding and Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man and Compass, by Mathias Énard—and there are no books more memorable.
If I watch television, at the end of two hours, I feel cheated and undernourished (although I’m always being told of splendid new TV dramas I haven’t discovered yet); at the end of two hours of reading, my mind is racing, and my spirit is renewed—if the book is good …
I rely on other writers and experienced readers to guide me to the good books. Yiyun Li told me to read Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. I’ll always be grateful to her. My husband, the writer Michael Carroll, lent me Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade and Joy Williams’s short-story collection Honored Guest. The novelist and essayist Edward Hower, Alison Lurie’s husband, gave me a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, reissued by New York Review Books (not that Elizabeth Taylor, silly). Because I lived in Paris for sixteen years, I discovered many great French writers, including the contemporaries Jean Echenoz and Emmanuel Carrère and the extraordinary historical novelist Chantal Thomas, and I spoke at the memorial ceremony of the champion of the nouveau roman Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was a friend. Julien Gracq is in my pantheon, along with the Irish writer John McGahern.
I’ve read books in many capacities—for research, as a teacher, as a judge of literary contests, and as a reviewer.
As early as Nocturnes for the King of Naples (a title I stole from Haydn, who also contributed the title of my novel The Farewell Symphony), I was researching the odd bit. In that book, I liked the Baroque confusion between sacred and sexual love, and I threaded into it references to several poets and mystics. I also disguised poems (couplets, a sonnet, a sestina); I wrote them out as prose. With my Caracole, I drew inspiration from the life of Germaine de Staël—but also from eighteenth-century Venetian memoirs I consulted in the library of the Palazzo Barbaro, where I spent several summers. Perhaps my biggest research job was my biography of Jean Genet, though I was helped on a daily basis by the great Genet scholar Albert Dichy. We read copies of the lurid magazine Detective, which inspired Genet at several junctures; old copies were stored in the basement of Gallimard. I read the semigay Montmartre novels (such as Jésus-la-Caille, by Francis Carco) that Genet surpassed; we consulted everything we could find in print about the Black Panthers. I found a store on lower Broadway that sold political posters and other ephemera. Since it was the first major Genet biography, we interviewed hundreds of people he’d known. And all this was before Google or the Internet. For my other two biographies (short ones on Proust and Arthur Rimbaud), I did no original research, though I had to read the enormous secondary literature on each writer; much of my work was done at the main Princeton library.
For my novel Fanny, about the abolitionist Frances Wright and Frances Trollope, a novelist and the mother of Anthony Trollope, I was living in London and working every day in the then new British Library at St. Pancras in 2001; I read endless books about America in the 1820s, crossing the Atlantic, slavery, Jefferson, what people wore and ate; of course I read each of my two ladies’ books. I loved ordering up the day’s books and waiting for them to arrive at my station. I loved passing teatime in the library cafeteria. I never got up the courage to say hello to anyone—but that, too, felt very English.
When I wrote my Stephen Crane novel, Hotel de Dream, I was a fellow of the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library’s Forty-Second Street location. I had millions of books at my disposal, hundreds of images of New York in the 1890s, even a complete set of menus for the period. Research librarians were at my disposal; I asked one, Warren Platt, to tell me how much a mediocre life-size marble statue would have cost in the 1890s—he studied the stonecutter’s manual and auction catalogues of the day. I read newspaper accounts on microfilm of a bar raid of the first New York gay bar, the Slide, on Bleecker. I read the biography of Giuseppe Piccirilli, who became a character; he was the man who’d sculpted the lions in front of the library. Even in my latest novel, I had a character who forges paintings by Salvador Dalí; I had to bone up on art forgeries.
I love research, and in my next life, I want to be a librarian.
I’ve taught creative writing (and occasionally literature courses for writers) since the mid seventies at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, New York University, Brown, and Princeton, among other schools. Even in workshops, we read published stories by celebrated living writers— Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Richard Bausch, and dozens of others, including stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Lorrie Moore, the best of the bunch. People assume that college kids are on the cutting edge of contemporary fiction, but if you want to know what’s happening, ask someone who’s thirty, not twenty. Undergrads are too busy reading about quantum physics or, if they’re literary, Ulysses or To the Lighthouse.
When I taught literature courses for writers in 1990 at Brown, I tried to expose students to all kinds of international writing different from American realism. We read A Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Gravity’s Rainbow, John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges, Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (he’d won—and deserved—the Nobel Prize), Raymond Queneau’s The Sunday of Life, and many others. Sometimes I felt I was the only one in the class who’d read the books. Brown, however, had a real avant-garde mission in both poetry and prose, and good writers came out of the program, such as Alden Jones, Andrew Sean Greer, and Ben Marcus, author of The Age of Wire and String.
I’ve judged many literary contests. For the Booker in 1989 (the year Kazuo Ishiguro won for The Remains of the Day), I had to read a hundred thirty books, but since I’d lived in France so many years, I read them cynically à la diagonale (very rapidly, or only the first third); the other judges, being English, took the job much more seriously. I remember my fellow judge David Profumo saying of a particular title, “Wait till you read it a second time.” I think Ishiguro’s novel was an ideal prize candidate because it was short and very high-concept—the plot was easy to retain and summarize. I judged the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. For several years, I was on the prize committee of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and for almost a decade, I’ve been a judge for the Premio Gregor von Rezzori, an award given to the best book in any language translated into Italian that year (not the best translation but the best book), though I read them in French or English. This job has led me to read a whole host of books written in Chinese, Arabic, German, Romanian, and so on. Cărtărescu’s Blinding is the best book I read for the contest.
Almost every literary gay book gets sent to me for a blurb, and I’ve become a true blurb slut. It’s a bit like being a loose woman; everyone mocks you for your liberality—and everyone wants at least one date with you. I like to help first-time authors (if I admire their work), but serious writers aren’t supposed to be so generous with their favors. Now that I’m old, I turn down most manuscripts, and I always remind publishers that I might not like their new books if I do read them. A good blurb is pithy, phrased unforgettably, at once precise and a statement that makes broad claims for the book.
Reading books by friends is a special problem. They usually want a review, not a mere blurb. If I have mixed feelings about a friend’s book, I phone him or her rather than write something. In a conversation, one can judge how honest the writer wants you to be. He or she will clam up right away or press for a fuller statement. Sometimes I give writers reports as I read along; most writers can’t wait for a week to get a full report.
I’ve written hundreds of book reviews, and I always overdo it. I feel obliged to read several other books by the same author—if not the collected works. A review should summarize the subject if not the plot, give a sample of the prose, relate this book to other relevant ones, and most important, say whether it’s good or bad. Of course, a long review in The New York Review of Books becomes an essay. All reviews take three times more effort than one foresees—at least for an American, slow-witted and thick-tongued as we are, and so unused to having a sharp, biting opinion. I remember reading in George Bernard Shaw’s youthful journals something about spending the morning at the British Library and dashing off his reviews. Reviews, plural.
Reading books for pleasure, of course, is the greatest joy. No need to underline, press on, try out mentally summarizing or evaluating phrases. One is free to read as a child reads—no duties, no goals, no responsibilities, no clock ticking: pure rapture. Proust’s essay “On Reading” is a magical account of a child’s absorption in a book, his regret about leaving the page for the dinner table, even the erotic aspect (he reads in the water closet and associates with it the smell of orris root). Perhaps my pleasure in reading has kept me from being a systematic reader. I never get to the bottom of anything but just step from one lily pad to another. The French supervisor of the translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Valery Larbaud read in many languages; he had his English books bound in one color, his German books in another, and so on. He inherited wealth, but his fortune became meaningless when he succumbed to a paralysis that rendered him speechless and motionless the last twenty-two years of his life.
Until something dire happens to me, I’ll continue to read (and occasionally to write). Someone said a writer should read three times more than he or she writes. I’m afraid I read much more than I set to paper. There is no greater pleasure than to lie between clean sheets, listen to music, and read under a strong light. (I write to music too—it cuts down on the loneliness and helps a nonmusician like me to resist and to concentrate.) I suppose everyone reading this has felt the secret joy of knowing that a good, suspenseful book is waiting half read beside your pillow. For me, right now it’s John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, dedicated to John Irving, whose books have kept me awake for decades.
Excerpted from The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, by Edmund White (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Edmund White is the author of many novels, including A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, and, most recently, Our Young Man. His nonfiction includes City Boy, Inside a Pearl, and other memoirs; The Flâneur, about Paris; and literary biographies and essays. White lives in New York.
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