A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Reflections on reading: making connections

One of the things I notice about reading, or perhaps it is just the books I read and particularly enjoy, is how one book opens connections to another book or another something or other that sends my mind wandering in a direction I wasn’t expecting. And so I have to explore it, or want to explore it, until I read the next book which sets my mind wandering in another, completely different direction and I’m so full of things I want to know and explore that I simply don’t know where to start and I’m left wondering how, with all the information and experiences and ideas there are in the world, anyone has time to ever get to know anything and where does it stop and instead I’ll go and watch an episode of Stargate SG1 or a panel show or a Studio Ghibli movie and try to forget about it all.

Perhaps that is why people watch TV programmes like Coronation Street and Neighbours.  In the infinity of ideas and knowledge and stories one is as good as another.

I have noticed this particularly because it has happened a lot to me lately. I have spent a lot of time following threads and accumulating a list of desires and interests. Right now I am re-reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which is an amazing book, and which I remember from my first read made me want to watch The Seven Samurai (which I did, followed by the car crash that is The Magnificent Seven (comparably) ), learn Greek (which I didn’t), learn Japanese (which I have attempted many times and largely failed) and which cemented in my head forever more the phrases ‘a good samurai will parry the blow’ and ‘if we were using real swords, I'd have killed you’ which are from The Seven Samurai which is, in fact, an excellent film and which spiralled me into a relationship with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune (who is peerless in  The Hidden Fortress, which inspired Star Wars if you can believe it) and Takashi Shimura (known for Godzilla and the masterpiece Ikiru which everyone should watch).  Right now I am feeling that I absolutely must watch Sanshiro Sugata, which is available in a box set of Kurosawa movies meaning I will have even more Kurosawa movies, as though such a thing were possible. Sigh.

Then thinking back, I begin to acknowledge all the other crazy things I have absolutely had to do after reading a book. Like how after reading Olivia Laing’s To The River I absolutely had to start walking again (which I have done and which I have enjoyed greatly and consequently have thought, quite seriously, about walking The Pennine Way solo and writing a book about it only to find that Simon Armitage has pretty much done that already. Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps?) as well as dig, heavily, into the life and works of Virginia Woolf. And reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries has made me highly curious about the life of Vita Sackville-West and consequently I’m now reading the letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West and I have logged, on my wishlist, Vita Sackville-West’s book Challenge which is a love story about her relationship with Violet. Then I find there are letters from Vita to Virginia Woolf and I absolutely must read those. You get the picture. And I recall having read A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely certainly having to read the Shōbōgenzō (which I have started and not got very far with) and Proust (I endured book 1. No more).

I begin to realise how much influence books have over my life. In fact when I think about it, it is not just my own life that my reading influences but also the life of my family. My husband has been (and will be) subjected to many Kurosawa movies, some of which he wanted to watch and others not so much. And my whole family has been indoctrinated into a love of Japan, primarily because of my reading habits (and viewing...which may have spun from the reading thing). I go for walks with my daughter, which I can directly attribute to my current interest in nature/travel writing (though, to be fair, it did remind me how much I have always enjoyed being in amongst nature) and which will probably worsen when I get around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust which is sitting on my shelf right now in prime reading position.

All this made me wonder if it would be possible to trace all your reading habits (or mine, perhaps) back to one book. That one critical book which tipped off the next book, which pointed to the next book, which indicated the next three and so on and so forth until before you know it you’re so buried in books you want to read that really the only thing to do is close the library door and go switch on Neighbours.

I am not so sure this isn’t a sign of madness. I look at my library shelves and wonder, if amongst the titles, the varied and seemingly unconnected mass of them, there is a pulsing link, that a cleverer person than me could look at those books and read my neural map there, figure out who I am and every notable experience in my history. Do my books read me? It is disconcerting to think that someone could deduce a key aspect of my character merely from the positioning of A Vindication on the Rights of Women next to Thus Spake Zarathustra, my tattered copy of The Penguin Book of Modern Verse compared to the sharp-edged Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, my neat collection of grey-backed Persephones.  

I wonder how unique this kind of reading journey is. Is that how everyone experiences it? That one book leads to the curiosity for another. If I hadn’t read Angela Carter as an impressionable teenager, would I be a feminist? If I hadn’t read Cloud Atlas, would I have ever discovered The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Writers lead to writers and stories to stories and suddenly the world unfolds as one, great, narrative including the story of us and the story of stones, the story of dinosaurs, the story of art, the story of war and conflict, the story of country, the story of love and peace, the story of the flowers in the field, the story of bones, the story of air, the story of what is fixed and what is broken, the story of time, my story and yours.

I want to read them all; I know that is not possible. So I guess I will continue to plough ahead, following the map the books give me, wherever that leads. 

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