Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Reading: context and memory

Near the end of McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a dancing bear gets shot--it is but one more act of violence in a book full of senseless, meaningless violence. As I read the incident, I couldn't help but recall Hawthorne's "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," when Endicott orders a bear that was dancing with people to be shot.

Near the beginning of Shaw's Man and Superman, Ramsden tries to console Octavius over Whitefield's death by telling him "it's the common lot." Reading this, it is hard not to recall Gertrude's admonition to Hamlet that "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that live must die/ Passing through nature to eternity" (Hamlet dismisses her with "Ay, madam, it is common"; no matter how true it is, it is pretty shoddy consolation to tell a mourner that death is the common lot).

I don't know that either McCarthy or Shaw intended an allusion (though the parallel in the death of the dancing bear in Blood Meridian and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" offers intriguing symbolic meaning). What's more, it doesn't matter if these parallels were intentional. As a reader, the connection has been made in my head. As I am reading, I can't ignore my memories of earlier works I've read: the parallels pop into my brain whether I seek them out or not. These parallels may mean much, or they may mean little and I might pass over them quickly.

But while reading one work, I have the memory of everything else I've ever read (or at least, everything that I remember of everything else I've ever read). As I'm fully engaged with a text, that text may remind me of other things I've read. It may provoke me to stop and consider the texts.

For reading, that means at least two things, I suppose. It means we rarely read in a vacuum: we bring ourselves and our memories of past reading to the reading experience. It also means that finishing a book does not truly mean finishing a book: that book could come back to you at a future moment, in unexpected context.


  1. You are dead on with this post! And it isn’t limited to book-to-book connections, either. A theme I’ve noticed among the great writers I’ve met and learned from is that they all say they bring an element of what they’re currently reading to what they’re currently writing—whether they intend to or not. Sometimes the results are disastrous, ridiculous, plagiaristic even, and have to be deleted, but it can’t be helped. Our allusion base, or better yet, our IDEA base (which probably causes us to detect allusions even where they aren’t intended) is always turned on.

    This is, as you said, especially true with reading. I listen to Bob Dylan and hear Euripides. You read Cormac McCarthy (who is incredible, by the way) and recognize Shakespeare. These are perhaps not intentional allusions, and there are other explanations for the connection other than intentional allusion: the writer read and internalized the ideas of the other writer; the writer never read the other writer but tapped into that collective well of human truth that great writers have access to; the writer never read the other writer but the other writer’s idea has become such a part of the fabric of our culture that it reached writer A that way; et cetera, et cetera.

    This is why I find it so interesting to read other people’s ideas on books I’ve already read and analyzed, books that I may have even exhausted the scholarly opinions on. The books each individual has read or not read, the order she or he has read them in, personal experience—all these contribute to what she or he sees in a work; in other words, there’s always something unique or different to be found, even about the Hamlets or the Don Quixotes.

  2. Anonymous5:15 PM

    when you're reading like that the process becomes an inspired creative act where you are creating meaning independent of the texts. it becomes something where you are using the world around you to develop a stronger understanding of the world. but i don't know how much of it has to do with a strong reading of mccarthy. This is why I generally agree that all writing comes from other writing and that all creative writing is misreading/improvement upon prior text. i know most of my reading is the sort where i read what i want into the text based upon my love for brett favre and orson welles.


  3. I absolutely agree with your assertion that all writing comes from other writing. I believe it applies not only to ideas, but to form.

    I have this disagreement with other English teachers all the time--they shy away from teaching form, as many of them say that a set form "restricts" and that kids have to "discover" how to do it their own way.

    Actually, I tell them, a set form liberates--because you know where you are going form-wise, how you are going to put it together, you can focus on being inventive in other areas.

    What they'll "discover" is how to do it somebody else's way with their own spin on it, which is what every writer does, and teaching them forms will accelerate that process of discovery, not hinder it.

    The trick is to teach a wide variety of forms, and also to let kids play around inside those forms to see what works--not to expect kids to invent form. A novelist never writes a novel, I tell them, if he has never read a novel before, if he has no understanding of the form. He may modify that form, but in doing so, he has responded to other novels in form as well as in ideas.

  4. I feel the same way about form. If writers want to alter form, experiment with form, even break form, create new forms, that's fine. But first, they should learn what those forms are (and they should probably master them). One of my duties as a teacher is to teach students how to write well in academic form and style (which is a big reason we read so much in a composition course--students should have models of writing to examine and learn from). As they improve on that, they should also be discovering their unique writing voices.

  5. Anonymous3:09 PM

    i think a writer has to seek the source of the style, too. to soak in the history. to not just admire cormac mccarthy, say, but to find the source of mccarthy and to give themselves a chance to be inspired the way mccarthy was, into something mccarthy is not.

    there's very little real innovation in the history of literature. there's always a host of precursors. too many writers i've met settle for reading contemporary fiction and they have little understanding or appreciation of what is possible or what has happened or where these writers have come from etc. they know only what comes after raymond carver and what raymond carver says chekov said. they don't realize or care that carver was just a decision that was made away from a certain style.

    so, mccarthy for instance, is a dangerous influence because he stands apart from contemporary fiction. to a lot of people he seems absolutely original--then to people who have read faulkner he reads like faulkner. but he's at the end of a long line of writers beginning with homer and traveling up through virgil and dante. that lineage terminates with mccarthy in a particular way. in order to create anything new you have to go back to when these things were new and try to create something off of that starting point, not from the ending point. if that makes any sense.


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