Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2016

On Patience, The Art of Reading, by Damon Young

The Art of ReadingI said in my previous post about Damon Young’s The Art of Reading that I didn’t expect to read it straight through, all in one go, as I usually do – but I couldn’t resist the chapter on Patience.  I read it this morning over my Sunday morning mushrooms-on-toast, overlooking my back garden washed clean by the torrent of rain that came with a thunderstorm at three o’clock this morning.

I wrote that last sentence on purpose: did it provoke you to mutter ‘Oh, do get on’, as Henry James’s The Golden Bowl provokes QEII in Alan Bennett’s sly The Uncommon Reader?

(If you haven’t read An Uncommon Reader, I recommend it, even for ardent republicans.  QEII stumbles into a mobile library in pursuit of one of her corgis, and while not a reader, feels obliged to borrow a book.  She becomes hooked.  Reading transforms her. )

Any resemblance in my writing to that of Henry James can  only be in respect of requiring patience from the reader.   Young notes that it requires patience of the queen to read Henry James and others like him and deconstructs the investment.  It takes patience to read Xavier Herbert in Poor Fellow My Country, and half way through its 1443 pages I was beginning to wonder what I was getting out of my investment.  There are books like this, says Young, with protracted sentences and slow evasiveness, books which make us feel – especially as we age and feel our time is limited – that perhaps we are wasting our time.  And awareness of time is essential to reading:

… every word joins its remembered ancestors and imagined descendants.  It is because we recall previous paragraphs, and anticipate new ones, that the current phrases make sense.  It is because she learns about the Prince’s waywardness at the beginning of The Golden Bowl that the queen can envisage his later deception and subtle defeat.  (p. 52)

[This is why some readers get so irritated by authorial departures from chronological time.  They are disconcerted by time that isn’t sequential as they expect it to be: from the vantage of now, looking back into the past and expecting the future.]

But a book provokes boredom (Oh, do get on!) when it summons awareness of our own time passing, and then we need the patience to continue in defiance of the sense that our own time is running out.  We need patience when writers test our endurance with stray clumsiness, monotony or ugliness.  [With Xavier Herbert, I need patience to tolerate his preaching.]  We need patience to endure confronting scenes [a topic discussed here on this blog in the aftermath of Zola’s La Débâcle, where scenes of brutal human pain and animal suffering test the reader’s forbearance.]  With some books there is a price to pay for the illumination they offer.

I chuckled, however, when Young explored the kind of patience needed to deal with Dan Brown and his ilk.

What simplifies Brown’s pages is the lack of innovation and sympathy: the prose is almost wholly cliché and the characters rice-paper puppets.  The Da Vinci Code is pure plot, without the complications of Henry James’s language or psychological nuance.  It takes zero toil to move from scene to scene, puzzle to puzzle.  It is masterfully generic.  Brown’s bestselling story is perfect for mass audiences, with little in common but their gratitude for a brief escape.

But this is what also makes Dan Brown a strain.  From the first chapter, I cringe at the hackneyed metaphors, which have no particular signature of authorship. The ‘heavy fist pounded’.  Toes ‘sink deep’ into a carpet. Of course a bathrobe is ‘donned’.  These familiar verbs and adjectives are the equivalent of a grown-up lullaby: sung every day, consolingly, for generations. His hero, Robert Langdon, is a persona.  I never get past the mask into a mind.  The only player with some psychological complexity is Silas, the masochistic albino priest.  Because Brown’s prose is so commonplace, his characters so transparent, I keep stopping every few sentences.   (p. 57-8)

Because every now and again I find myself persuaded to read a book that my instincts warn is not for me, I recognise that same feeling when Young writes I want the novel to end – not for the climax but for the banality to stop.

[BTW lest you suspect that Young is a book snob, he reads Batman and he says that detective novels appeal to our sense that logic and reason will prevail.]

Age, and experience with books help us know when a book will be worth the forbearance.  Youth sometimes denies us the maturity to enjoy a more crowded human reality.  [This is why we see young readers at Goodreads hurling their one-star brickbats at great works of literature, especially if they have been made to read them at school.  If they persist with reading, they will one day be embarrassed by their younger selves, but we have all been there. I hated James Joyce’s Ulysses the first time I read it.  I thought Pride and Prejudice was a soppy romance when I read it at 14.  I am lucky that circumstances conspired to keep me reading and that I developed the patience that’s needed for much of great literature.]

Patience is not a sexy virtue, but it is prized because the benefits of reading are never instantaneous. (p. 59)

And so, back to Poor Fellow My Country.  I’m up to page 910…

Update: 5/5/16

The only advantage of having damaged my shoulder is that it confines me to barracks for much of the time and that gives me more time for reading.  Yesterday I took my mind off things by romping through the rest of The Art of Reading.  The chapters on ‘courage’ and ‘pride’ are a little dense with philosophical considerations of philosophers I don’t know well, but I loved the chapter on ‘Temperance’ because I am a glutton with books, and with its references to Virginia Woolf’s dismissal of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the chapter on ‘Justice’, I took note of the imperative to be fair in my judgements about books I don’t like.

I also really liked the last chapter called ‘The Lumber Room’ – not really a chapter but a different way of doing a Bibliography – because it’s a kind of canon for reading without really being a canon, and it explains why a certain edition is a particularly good one to have if you can find it.   All in all, this is a lovely, thoughtful and often amusing book for anyone who wants to be a serious reader.

Highly recommended.

Author: Damon Young
Title: The Art of Reading
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780522867602
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press

Availability
Direct from Melbourne University Press,
Fishpond: The Art of Reading
or good bookstores everywhere.

 


Responses

  1. I agree “We need patience when writers test our endurance with stray clumsiness, monotony or ugliness”. I’m not sure we need patience for good, ‘difficult’ writing, I think that needs effort and attention. On the other hand we probably do need patience with extensive exposition – so stick with X. Herbert, we’re counting on you.

  2. Patience is a virtue, so you’re being quite virtuous reading Poor Fellow… I’m looking forward to your review!

    • At about 50 pages a day (I just have to read something else in between) I should finish in the middle of May….

  3. These are interesting snippets Lisa. I think a lot of people are put off reading is because of the fear that they won’t understand it, especially with the big books of literature. A bit of confusion doesn’t seem to bother me. Reading Proust was very helpful in that it highlighted to me that I actually like reading slowly and it doesn’t bother me so much when others seem to read so many more books than me.

    • It’s a fascinating book with so much to think about. It’s one of those ones that make me want to quote just about the whole book.
      Sometimes I look at ‘top readers’ are Goodreads and can’t get my head around how many books have been read. I am a fast reader, and I can get through some books in one day but generally they are not particularly fulfilling books.

  4. I’ll have to check the book out.

    I find that reading often gets me daydreaming. For example, I’m just reading my next installment of Powell’s Dance and I’ve been thinking about it, writing a blog post in my head, thinking about what others have said about it etc.This is all part of the reading process.

    I liked the quote about Da Vinci Code as it was spot on. I didn’t hate it but it is totally plot-driven which isn’t the sort of book I particularly like. I can see why it was so popular with an impatient public.

    • Sometimes I’m more ‘in the book’ than I am in real life…

  5. What a lovely post!

    • BTW where are you these days? Not back in Sablet, by the look of your blog?

      • I’m in Burradoo, in NSW’s Southern Highlands. Halfway between you and the Hunter Valley, if I remember… ;)

        • Oh yes *smacks forehead*, *portent of advancing old age* you told me already!

  6. Interesting comment on young readers. I was rarely able to interest my son in books that I had loved in my childhood and early teens (with the exception of The Hobbit), and I noticed at the time that the big differences between the books being written for his age group (late 90s through to now, really) were: much more violence and immediacy; and far less description. The Wizard of Earthsea was far too slow to grab his attention. Books for children these days seem to all be written with selling the screenplay at the forefront of the author’s mind.

    I’m not saying they aren’t good, just that it seems to me that books written for ‘young adults’ have changed in a way that doesn’t encourage patience. When I was young there were far fewer books around, and of course way fewer electronic distractions, so I guess those of us who wanted to read, had to be patient to get the rewards.

    • Yes, the problem of guiding young people with books is one that never goes away. One school of thought offers them anything they like as long as they are reading, and authors like Andy Griffiths and Paul Jennings cater for that with books that kids think are hilarious and adults find banal and forgettable.
      When I was a teacher librarian, I left books like that to parents and class teachers and read them much more challenging stuff. I read them Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, classic serials by Australian authors such as Ivan Southall and modern classics like The Tale of Despereaux. LOL since they were a captive audience they would have to listen and nearly always ended up liking the books.
      I don’t know if I turned any of the boys into keen readers but I did give them some memorable literary experiences. And that was our definition: literature is books you remember all your life.

      • Good on you! It’s a good definition too :)

  7. […] The winner of the Best Designed Non Fiction Book sponsored by Affirm Press is Mary Callahan for The Art of Reading, (Melbourne University Press).    This is a fascinating book for anyone who cares about reading, see my review here. […]


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