Musings on Reading Literature

There’s a passage from the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (by Muriel Barbery, Europa Editions, 2008, p. 116-117) that so delighted me when I came across it that I read it aloud to Susan:

“Mildly hemorrhagic urine” is, to me, a form of light entertainment: it has a nice ring to it and evokes a singular world, a brief refreshing change from literature. For the very same reason, I enjoy reading the leaflets that come with medication, the respite provided by the precision of each technical term, which conveys the illusion of meticulousness and a frisson of simplicity, and elicit a spatiotemporal dimension free of any striving for beauty, creative angst or the never-ending and hopeless aspiration to attain the sublime.

The Elegance of the HedgehogClever, isn’t it? The book is like that; full of smart bits.

The writer is referring to a conversation with a neighbour about a cat’s urinary problems. Rather than flinch from the topic, she embraces it for the unemotional language it is told in. I can appreciate that sentiment.

She prefaces this passage by exclaiming to herself, “Dear God this is good. If she had said, There was blood in her pee, the story would have been over in no time. But Olympe, cloaking her cat doctor’s uniform with emotion has also adopted the terminology. I have always found great delight in hearing people speak like this.”

For that very reason — the change from story and narrative to the stark simplicity of technicality bereft of the rough winds that shape and change human emotions — I read computer software and hardware manuals. I read the leaflets that come with small devices like computer mice, HDMI cables, power bars, chargers, and smoke detectors. I read the warnings on pillows and cushions. Those words are written with clarity and succinctness.

(Of course, I would not, by choice, myself exclaim anything about, or for, or invoking a deity but, otherwise, I am sympathetic to the literary sentiment.)

I, too, read the leaflets that accompany medication, even resorting to a magnifying glass to read the mouse-type on vitamin and non-prescription medicine bottles. I read the writing on cereal boxes, soup cans, marmalade jars, and yogurt containers as avidly as I read the promotional content on book jackets and DVD cases. I even read the text in ads in the local “news” paper (a risibly minute fraction of which is actually news, and even less of which is palatable) and in many of the flyers that give it heft.

I sometimes drive Susan to distraction when we are in grocery stores, as I peruse each label, read the flaps of boxes, turning cans over in my hands, pondering the descriptions on products I’ll never buy, simply because I enjoy reading them. Or perhaps better said, I simply enjoy reading. I enjoy the contrasting mix of marketing with the mundane ingredient and nutritional lists. I am not obsessed with the products, but rather with the reading.

(Having been somewhat involved in marketing, promotion, and advertising in my past, I also like to examine packaging for its inventiveness, and attractiveness to consumers from both a graphic and literary perspective. Similarly, I read and judge the ads in magazines and newspapers.)

In a way, reading is like visiting other continents, or even other planets: each author, each format, each style, each webbing of words and punctuation is a different environment to explore. Some are barren, desert-like, desiccated, with verbal bones long shorn of meaty adjectival descriptions. Others are lush, given to fertile landscapes of dense verbiage and flush prose. Some packages contain siren songs to lure the read-aka-buyer; baited with alluring phrases that open wallets like flowers. Literature is, of course, more richly populated than the advertisements, with subjects of interest and amusement, and emotional gravitas (unless the reader has a vested interest in, say, creamed corn, ginger marmalade, or refried beans…).

When I was going through my recent surgery, recovery, hormonal and radiation treatments, I read everything the doctors, nurses, and therapists gave me. I liked the trim, no-nonsense explanations of catheters and medicinal side-effects, the casual inclusion of dry medical terms that made me reach for a dictionary, or at least pause and digest their presence. I liked that they aimed to inform without condescending, assumed a reasonable intelligence in the reader, and never descended into hectoring.

Reading literature is a stroll through a dense thicket of emotions and behaviour; walking through doors of motivation and intent into pastures of action and reaction. Often it’s like wandering into a farmers’ market or an Indian grocery: you get assailed by dozens of scents, visions, attractions. Intense, rich, demanding. Literature can become humid with human emotion, or sometimes wet enough to become a verbal pond or lake to immerse oneself in.

Reading something dry, something technical or neutral between chapters of a novel is a break from the emotional steaminess of the story-driven novels. A chance to be becalmed in the storm of emotions. A return to the surface after a long, deep dive. A desert dune amidst a sea of oases.

I usually read no more than a chapter of a novel at a time, interspersing the story with chapters from books on history, science, language, or even computer manuals. Sometimes I read an act or scene from a Shakespeare play, which I tend to read more intellectually than emotionally than I read novels. I like to spread my reading emotions thinly, like carefully buttering toast, rather than in large dollops. There might be two, three, or a dozen non-fiction books that come between the chapters of a novel.

In situations where I am constrained to wait, such as in a doctor’s office or while having my car services, I like to bring two or three books; usually one novel, and two non-fiction, to be able to hopscotch between styles without becoming too caught up in any. I feel deep sorrow for those who arrive with only a dreary mechanical device: a mobile phone — the tool of desperate self-absorption — to amuse them rather than a book or three.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a curiously touching and charming novel that, so far, has not driven me to seek succour from its emotional complexities in too many technical works. In fact, it is delightfully written. But, enjoyable as it is, I still read its chapters punctuated by the flagged semaphore of other books; merely with fewer interruptions than is my usual wont. I’m afraid it is a habit of far too many years for me to shed easily now.

Word count: 1,095

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One comment

  1. Another good passage from The Elegance of the Hedgehog appears on p. 158:

    Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.

    She goes on to say,

    I find there is nothing more beautiful… than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the very core of any statement,

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