Reading Randomly

literary conference

If you read this blog regularly, you might’ve already heard some of my ideas about reading “randomly” or “for no reason.” By this I mean the purposely haphazard approach I sometimes take toward obtaining books and selecting which ones to read. It’s kind of absurd, even nonsensical – buying a book at a yard sale or picking one out of a box of “junk” left on the curb the morning of recycling day, I’ll often choose a title that doesn’t appeal to me, a novel or memoir or historical survey or self-help book that I’d probably never, ever pay full price for (if I’d even pick it up to read the back). I place the book on a shelf and, one day, on a whim – because I caught sight of the spine as I walked by, because the cat knocked it off its perch, because the cover is the same color as the book I’d just finished – I set all my other reading plans aside and dig in.

Reading only those books that I actively want to read puts me in a sort of box, and this practice of random reading tugs me out of those false and, usually, unproductive confines. And even though these choices aren’t governed by rational thought (or any kind of thought at all), I often find delightful connections and echoes between these seemingly unrelated books. And it’s there, in the friction that occurs between these disparate yet somehow related texts, that I have some of my most interesting thoughts and best ideas. It’s in the collision of things that haven’t been combined before that newness is born – each crash like a tiny Big Bang, giving way to a novel universe. By now and again reading randomly, you’re doing about as much as you possibly can to guarantee that your thoughts and ideas are unique, expressive of your individuality alone.

I’ve believed all this for a long time – since, I suppose, the first time I picked up a random book (probably as a kid browsing my parents’ bookshelves, or needing to kill a few minutes between classes at school, or maybe waiting for my appointment to start at a doctor’s office) and found one of those delightful and unexpected connections, an echo of whatever novel I had in my backpack or on my desk back home. Just the other day, though, I came across a gorgeous, perfectly articulated statement in defense of these ideas and my somewhat absurd practice. It stunned me, and excited me, and left me briefly disoriented. It was like I’d turned a corner and bumped into myself.

The passage – from César Aira’s slim, funny, profound novel, The Literary Conference (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver) – comes shortly after the narrator has more or less randomly solved a centuries-old enigma involving a series of complicatedly knotted ropes that, plunging into the sea, are supposedly bound to some long-dead pirate’s massive treasure chest (this turns out to be true, awesomely).

“It is not that I am a genius or exceptionally gifted, not by any means. Quite the contrary. What happened (I shall try to explain it) is that every mind is shaped by its own experiences and memories and knowledge, and what makes it unique is the grand total and extremely personal nature of the collection of all the data that have made it what it is. Each person possesses a mind with powers that are, whether great or small, always unique, powers that belong to them and to them alone. This renders them capable of carrying out a feat, whether grandiose or banal, that only they could have carried out. In this case, all others had failed because they had counted on the simple quantitative progression of intelligence and ingenuity, when what was required was an unspecified quantity, but of the appropriate quality, of both. My own intelligence is quite minimal, a fact I have ascertained at great cost to myself. It has been just barely adequate to keep me afloat in the tempestuous waters of life. Yet, its quality is unique; not because I decided it would be, but rather because that is how it must be.

“This is and always has been the case in just this way with all people, at all times, everywhere. A single example taken from the world of culture (and what other world should we take it from?) might help clarify this point. An intellectual’s uniqueness can be established by examining their combined readings. How many people can there be in the world who have read these two books: The Philosophy of Life Experience by A. Bogdanov, and Faust by Estanislao del Campo? Let us put aside, for the moment, any reflections these books might have provoked, how they resonated or were assimilated, all of which would necessarily be personal and nontransferable. Let us instead turn to the raw fact of the two books themselves. The concurrence of both in one reader is improbable, insofar as they belong to two distinct cultural environments and neither belongs to the canon of universal classics. Even so, it is possible that one or two dozen intellectuals across a wide swathe of time and space might have taken in this twin nourishment. As soon as we add a third book, however, let us say La Poussière de soleil by Raymond Roussel, that number becomes drastically reduced. If it is not “one” (that is, I), it will come very close. Perhaps it is “two,” and I would have good reason to call the other “mon semblable, mon frère.” One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude. But I have not read four books; chance and curiosity have placed thousands in my hands. And besides books, and without departing from the realm of culture, there are records, paintings, movies . . .

“All of that, as well as the texture of my days and nights since the day I was born, gave me a mental configuration different from all others.”

Even stripped of its context, I hope this passage will inspire you to pick up and dive into the next book you randomly, coincidentally come across (maybe, thinking of this post as the catalyst, it will be Aira’s). Because by injecting a little absurdity into your reading, you are, according to Aira, further defining and elaborating your individuality. Read randomly – you’ll enliven your imagination, and maybe even your life.

Questions and Answers

A Monster Calls – the novel inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd but written, after Dowd’s passing, by Patrick Ness – is about many things. It’s about loss and love and truth and death, about divorce and cancer and bullies, about frustration and grief, about trees and schools and hospitals and parents. But in addition to all this, A Monster Calls is about stories, and all of the art and magic bound up in the telling of them.

A_Monster_CallsIn a way, all great novels are about stories and storytelling, and A Monster Calls is certainly great. But rather than address the power of stories and the art of storytelling only by way of example, Ness tackles these themes head on. The novel is packed with stories within the larger story, and Conor, the novel’s protagonist, and the monster of the book’s title engage in several extended conversations about what makes a good story and what, if anything, a good story can do.

During one such discussion, after the monster has finished telling a tale about a queen and a prince and a farmer’s daughter, Conor – frustrated and perhaps a bit bored, too – demands that the monster stop wasting his time and just tell him what the point of the story is already. He asks about the “lesson” behind it, and then promptly decides that it must be about him, Conor, being nicer to his grandmother.

The monster laughs. You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster says. (The creature’s dialogue is always italicized, and not set off with quotes – the same as Conor’s own thoughts.) You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness? The monster’s laughter then grows “louder and louder . . . until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.”

This is only one of many important ideas about stories and storytelling explored in A Monster Calls, but it’s an especially important one for not only readers, but also writers, to remember. Stories – the good ones, at least – aren’t read and written for straightforwardly instructional purposes. A good story doesn’t – and doesn’t try to – contain digestible lessons, nicely packaged morals, a set or even a single answer.

Stories ask questions. Sometimes the hardest ones – the questions it feels (and might even be) impossible to face directly. The greatest stories ask, and then carefully depict the ways in which a question can contort and expand, how even a seemingly simple one can in fact contain countless others. And the greatest storytellers – they’re not answer-providers, but question-posers. They don’t tell you what to think – they provide a space in which you can laugh and cry and wonder and ache and, maybe, at the end of all that, you’ll turn that last page and put the book down feeling like you’ve gained something, something hefty yet invisible, brought about by words yet unspeakable – something that feels very much like an answer.

What “Write What You Know” Really Means

Write what you know. This little nugget of instruction seems to have been floating around the writing world since the writing world first took shape. You might hear it offered in a workshop, read it in an author interview, or find it in the pages of one of those “how-to” books. But these four seemingly simple words constitute what must be the most widely – and wildly – misunderstood bit of advice since a guy and gal were told not to eat the apples off a certain very special tree.

The problem is one of literality. Because when taken literally, the products of a pen sticking to write-what-you-know prose are going to read more like diary entries than novels. Take me, for instance. I don’t have to exclusively write stories dealing with individuals who spent their childhood moving across the country from college town to college town with a pair of professor parents, only to finally settle down in a small suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I can write about such characters. Because, yeah – I’ve got a heap of personal insight into what that sort of life might be like. But to restrict myself to such a narrative would be doing a huge disservice to myself and anyone who may read my work.

Let’s break the phrase down. And, because rules are meant to be broken, why don’t we begin at the end. That word – know. It’s clear enough what it means in a literal sense, but as soon as you step away from such concreteness, things get slippery. Is it ever possible to know what someone else is feeling? I’d argue yes. Certainly. It isn’t simple. It isn’t foolproof. It takes hard work, and lots of it, but I believe one can empathically enter into a situation or set of circumstances that they themselves have never literally lived through. These experiences leave you with little kernels of knowledge, emotional and psychological truths that you can take with you into imaginative circumstances.

Which is where the writing comes in. The word write, in this instance, does not merely refer to the mechanical act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When it comes to writing what you know, the word instead embodies the entire writing process – beginning with that slow, painstaking practice of imagining yourself into a life you haven’t literally lived, of stepping into someone else’s shoes for a stroll, or lacing up a pair of their boots for a full-on trek. The process is sustained and informed by the imaginative, empathic journey you took (or continue taking) into that once-foreign body, life, or world, and the product of your labors is enriched by those kernels of emotional and psychological knowledge you’ve brought along for the ride. It works like the introduction of water to a dry and lifeless planet.

Do I realize that this is all a tad highfalutin, and that I might kinda sound like an ass?

Yes.

But that is because I take this seriously. Empathy is the superpower available to any and every human being. It can change the world, and regularly changes individual lives. I know that it’s changed, and continues to change, mine. At times, that empathy comes in the form of a conversation or embrace from my fiancée or a friend. Other times, it comes in the pages of a novel, one authored by a person who has put in the work it takes to know about a series of situations or set of circumstances they have not literally lived through. It is what I try to imbue my own writing with, and what I hope to offer to every reader of my work.