Bullfighting on the Beach
Guest blogger Carrie Callaghan writes about choosing what to read.
The Library of Congress holds over 34.5 million books and printed materials nestled along some 838 miles of shelving – that’s just a little less than a road trip from Washington, D.C. to Madison, Wisconsin for those who like their books laid out in a line. The Library does not hold a copy of every book published in the United States, so that doesn’t even represent the sum total of the books available to us. From a reader’s perspective that’s a lot of books.
A friend once told me a grim estimate. Based upon her reading speed and estimated lifespan, she thought she had about 150 books left to read in her life. How to pick which ones? I haven’t done the math myself because the answer would surely paralyze me. I don’t want to think about whether or not a book deserves to be one of the only 300 (or 500 or whatever) books I read in my lifetime. I want to think about whether it will challenge me and whether I’ll enjoy the read.
The best books, in my view, have writing that engages with past authors, whether it’s Aristotle or Virginia Woolf or Frank Herbert, and invites the reader to participate in that dialogue. The search for those books is part of what makes reading exciting, especially when you stumble upon one that’s a great story too. Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is one of my favorite books, partly because she evokes 18th century revolutionary France with a dirt-on-your-waistcoat realism, but also because she invites the reader to join in a conversation about the heady ideas exchanged by Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. Mantel isn’t writing history – the book is too intimate for that, and that’s not the point – but she is trying to make us think and, even more, feel. Whose heart doesn’t race when the mob is banging at the door of Desmoulins’s wife, Lucile? By the time Parisians are clamoring for her family’s blood, we’ve come to care for her.
Fiction, science is beginning to discover, actually changes your brain. Readers of fiction develop higher empathy skills, and they may be open to greater changes in personality than non-readers. I wouldn’t be surprised if MRI scans eventually discover that stories imprint memories upon our minds that are just as vivid as the ones we actually lived. I’ve never been to India, but I’ve read so many books about it that sometimes I think I have. Obviously, my mental India will have very little to do with the real India I will encounter one day, but the point is that I have a richness in my mental geography that I would otherwise lack. Stories work the only true magic that I know.
A few years ago, my man and I pampered ourselves with a short trip to the Dominican Republic. It was January, just after Christmas, so I had a fat new book to pack in my suitcase. As I sat on an idyllic white sand beach and listened to the sapphire waves lap against the cove, I read about Spain. My father-in-law had given me James A. Michener’s Iberia, and now I can’t think about that vacation without remembering, just as vividly, a bullfight in a dusty bull ring, or the sound of migrating birds across southern Spanish wetlands.
But what does this paean have to do with writing? Well, everything, I’d argue. A writer who doesn’t read is a bit like someone who talks without stopping to listen. In addition to probably being a little boring and mispronouncing words because she’s never heard anyone else say them, such an interlocutor would be missing the point. Communication, both written and oral, is a joint effort. Reading is the only dance than can be conducted across time and space.
Fortunately, writers are almost always avid readers. It’s often the joy of reading that turns a human into a writer. There are some exceptions – the curmudgeonly V.S. Naipaul comes to mind – but generally, we’re all gracious conversationalists. We love hearing what others have to say (write), and when the time comes, we are brave enough to use our own pens to speak up.
Writers, though, do approach reading in a different way than non-writers. Sometimes we choose books because we want to devour them so as to enrich our own writing. Sometimes we choose books out of curiosity about a writer’s unique style or accomplishments. Sometimes we want to try, as hard as we can, to lose ourselves in the fictional dream and put down that editorial red pen. It’s a hard thing to do.
I hope that thinking of reading as a conversation will encourage you to choose a book that’s a challenge. You’re at the universe’s cocktail party – go chat up the middle-aged woman in mannish clothing, or the earnest Irishman with an unruly cravat or the two Urdu-speaking men making mischievous faces at each other. Challenge yourself, and then see how the reading changes your life and your writing.
Carrie Callaghan lives in Washington, DC with her husband, daughter and two poorly-named cats. She has fiction published in the Silk Road Review and forthcoming in Weave Magazine. Carrie also edits for the Washington Independent Review of Books and blogs about her own reading and writing adventures at http://opalescent-essence.blogspot.com/.