One thing the book club taught me (so far)

reading

Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Reading fiction: brain or heart work?

It is said that Schopenhauer is the originator of the following dictum: “Reading is thinking with somebody else’s brain.” Assuming he was referring to reading fiction, he was only partly right.

There is a movement afoot nowadays to make reading fiction palatable to school officials, syllabus makers, etc. by insisting that reading fiction makes people more empathic (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study).
This, also, gives only a partial picture of what reading does for the careful reader.

So there are at least two positions regarding reading fiction: that of the brain (thinking) and that of the heart (feeling). Long lists belonging to either camp can be collected. However, the suggestion here is that both are true at the same time: books make us think and make us feel. Furthermore, the greatest books make us do both, and more: they make us also cry and laugh, being in an imagined environment of the special world created in a different language. Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda (Einaudi, 1997) is one such book.

grasso

It makes the reader think: the story of Sasa` Azzarello’s life, set between the 1920s and sometime before the 2000s in Sicily, overturns the usual stereotype of the daughter doing what the father wants: it is the son who has to live up to the father’s expectations. Studying philosophy completes one of the requirements: the son is brainy. The other requirement, that of being sexually endowed and doing what that expectation commands (il capitale), is, however, another matter. The son’s unhappy love affair with a Friulian young woman whom he met while he was studying in Padova, makes contemplating suicide a real option. Thus, much of the protagonist’s time is spent in attempting to find the right way of ending his life, the right time, the right location. But he also participates in the life of the town: he meets his friends, he cares for his wheelchair-bound cousin. Sasa` shows himself to be a master in reworking the Pirandellian motto “Così e` se vi pare” (It is so if it seems to you so), combining thinking about a matter or an event (happy or sad) and laughing at and with it.
The novel makes the reader feel: among other psychological vicissitudes, the desire for self-annihilation, lasting for more than 50 years, torments Sasa`: but this torment is accompanied by the need to be loved, a need which is never satisfied.

The book makes the reader cry: the description of the protagonist’s solitude and his scheming to commit suicide are heartbreaking, as is his decision to obey his father and marry Maddalenina, a type of Xantippe who does not understand him.

The novel makes the reader laugh: on many an occasion, the carefully premeditated suicide mission fails on account of really petty events. Describing the wife’s irruptions into the protagonist’s humdrum activities as Caporetto is one of the many funny nuggets that require outright laud laughter.

Regarding the language of the novel, it must be said that it is one of a kind: lexically, the use of many of the varieties of Italian available creates a dreamily elaborate atmosphere, but the author is also skillful in adding special, realistic touches when employing Sicilian dialect terms. These features seem mundane now, since another contemporary author uses many of these in books published after Silvana Grasso published her works. Andrea Camilleri’s fiction is so overwhelming and forcefully supported by all types of media that it is difficult for another author to emerge. Silvana Grasso’s style, however, is stronger and more interesting. Syntactically, too, she plays with novel possibilities to extend the syntactic groups and add to her linguistic tree a crown which is full and life-producing. The academia, as well, has not given Grasso her due, as there are few solid studies of her works (see, for ex., the essay “I romanzi di Silvana Grasso” by Sharon Wood, published in the collection Il romanzo contemporaneo, edited by Franca Pellegrini and Elisabetta Tarantino (Trubadour Publishing: 2006, 93-107) and “Tendenze linguistiche nella narrativa di fine secolo” by Valeria Della Valle, included in La narrativa italiana degli anni Novanta edited by Elisabetta Mondello (Meltemi: 2004, 39-68)

If you have a book which does all four (make you think, feel, cry and laugh), like Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda, please share it with us in the comment section below.