Monday, April 05, 2004

Why One Reads (A.S. Byatt in NJTransit)

A weekend spent riding trains in the greater New York Area gave me the chance to read the better part of A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale. As a whole, this Byatt book is like a condensed version of her other novels (Possession, Virgin in the Garden) -- most of which involve disaffected academics who have obsessive relationships to obscure writers from earlier periods. Several of her tales also engage key figures in the advent of modern knowledge (Linnaeus, Darwin).

The sad thing about reading Byatt is that the plots are rather predictable: a desultory academic finds his/her life's passion through the discovery of amazing secrets about writer X, and quite likely falls in love with someone who looks like X or is X's descendent. But there is a wonderful thing about reading Byatt too -- her penchant for obscurity means she's happy to make many obscure references (many of which are entirely too obscure for this modernist), have passages in untranslated French (surprise language work-out), and some really interesting unfamiliar words (or sometimes old words used in ways I'm unfamiliar with). Two recent words: deliquescence (a word I really should have known) and quiddity (a very useful word).

All of which might lead one to question whether Byatt is to be recommended to any but alienated English professors and dissertating grad students (I was having quite a bit of difficulty explaining her appeal to S. on the train). But then one comes across passages like the following on why one reads:

It was difficult being a literary schoolchild -- I was often nearly put off by what turned out to be my vocation by the urgings of pedagogues who assured me I would 'discover myself' by reading, that I would 'understand myself' by 'identifying' with --well, whom? Robin Hood? Hamlet? Gregor Samsa? Prince Myshkin? No, no, the true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror--for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties. Also for meaning, for making sense of things, always with the proviso that complete sense cannot probably be made because of the restrictions of small things like death, and the configuration of the folds of our electrically charged, insensible grey matter. (from
The Biographer's Tale)

Maybe that helps.

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