Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Reading Bug

Neal's Yard Covent Garden
Maybe one of the primary reasons we read a work of  fiction is to escape into another world, a world that is created by the writer. To me reading fictions gives me an insight to the human heart, our heritage and the world. Different writings provide me with different types of  food for thought.

Reading is definitely continuing education and I cannot emphasize enough the pleasure of reading fictions. Books may not offer the reasons for why we are here, books do offer us some tips on how to live our lives. Great writings help to interprete life.

Have you heard of the reading bug?  I think if someone in your family is a reader, chances are you will
be infected with the bug. But in this electronic age where there are various types of home entertainment and portable devices, it is probably more conducive to get on the social network and catch up with friends or slouch in front of a television or a game station instead of curling up in a chair and read.

When we read, we tend to interprete the writings according to what we already know or what we think we know. Personally I feel limited by my way of thinking so I try to read with a view to explore new ideas and different ways of assessing certain issues. If I could possess a photographic memory, I would  be an omnivore as I am interested in such  a lot of things and would love to  read, study and generally absorb all the information. Since I have only an average power of memory, I have to be selective and prioritize what I really want to read about from time to time.

If we constantly interprete what we read according to what we know, it may not help us  grow and may even be counter productive . If we do not read with an open mind, we may not exactly nourish our minds since we are reinforcing what we think we already know. Reading is supposed to help one think and reinvent and possibly reconsider and reexamine issues and priorities in life, but if one has already made up his or her mind about how things should be, reading will only make him or her reiterate what he or she thinks.

In The Marriage Plot written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, Mitchell Grammaticus who is attracted to Christian mysticism lugs along with him books  as he  travels the world to get Madeleine Hanna out of his mind. During his travel to India, he finds himself confronting the questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love. An English major college student, Madeleine falls  for  Leonard Bankhead, a loner  who is bad news and when she  is heartbroken, she keeps the book A Lover’s  Discourse by Roland Barthes close by. Eugenides wrote “She had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”

It was the morning of her college graduation, there were all those books in the room where Madeleine lay, with a pillow over her head. The story begins with this description:

‘To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Elliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly…………..

‘She had read each and everyone ,often multiple times , frequently underlining passages, but that was no help to her now.’

She was glad she’d taken the book. Now, in her morose condition, the elegant prose of Roland Barthes was her one consolation. Breaking up with Leonard hadn’t lessened the relevance of A Lover’s Discourse one bit. There were more chapters about heartbreak than happiness, in fact. One chapter was called “Dependency.” Another, “ Suicide.” Still another, “In Praise of Tears.” The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry ….The slightest amorous emotion, whether of happiness or of disappointment, brings Werther to tears. Werther weeps often, very often, and in floods. Is it the lover in Werther who weeps, or is it the romantic.

A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental , if you recognized that being “in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was , it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit . The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes’ shadowy “I”. She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed.  Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And,oh, how she loved it!

The heroine Madeleine is evidently a bibliophile and an incurable romantic. Incidentally, I came across the essay entitled ‘The Second Shelf” written by  one of my favourite female writers,  Meg Wolitzer on the rules of literary fictions for men and women. Here is Wolitzer’s  opening sentence,

“If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?”* 

I feel that categorizing the book genre is for easy marketing of the book, ultimately good writings would find their readers. The story is set in the early 1980s when the country was in a recession, somehow it seemed self-indulgent for the heroine to fall hopelessly in love despite all the warning signs about the guy she was in love with. I cannot say for certain whether the character is an incurable romantic by reason of  the books she has read. Perhaps she is an incurable romantic to begin with, thus her selection of books.  I think  the great thing about being young is that you can be foolhardy without regard to consequences and how romantic love  can make you feel needy and heavy. The Marriage Plot   makes an engaging read if you are a romantic at heart although it does not have a Hollywood kind of ending. After all books remain books, reading fictions  is a perfect  getaway and it should be very safe just you and your books. 


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