Sometimes I wonder if the importance I place on literature and its role in society is unmerited, or at least exaggerated. I love books and I love the art of writing, yet when I think about the people and organisations in this world doing truly incredible things–exploring outer space, fighting poverty, curing disease–the bundles of paper and ink I hold in such high regard seem somewhat less dazzling.
However, something I’ve become aware of in the last year is the wickedness of comparison. I’ve done my fair share of “contrasting and comparing” in my academic essay-writing life, and I think it’s time to leave it there. “Comparison is the death of joy,” said someone once (I think it really was Mark Twain, but I’ve learned to never trust quotes on the Internet). Regardless, it’s true. It’s not my role to decide what’s great and important; it’s my role to do the best with what I’ve been given, even if the skill of forging a splendid sentence doesn’t seem that spectacular sometimes.
As is the way life works, just as I was having these doubts, I came across this piece by writer Alberto Manguel in Canadian Magazine Geist, titled Power to the Reader. It’s a well-crafted reflective essay on the power of literature and is definitely worth a read.
In at least one sense, however, all literature is civic action—because it is memory. All literature preserves something that otherwise would die away with the flesh and bones of the writer. Reading is reclaiming the right to this human immortality, because the memory of writing is all-encompassing and limitless.
I came across another quote in my reading this week that made me nod. I was loaned this book, Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast, by someone who lives in the Canadian Gulf Islands, and immediately understood why she would find it such a fun read. It follows the events in and around a fictional bed and breakfast on “one of the islands that populate the Strait of Georgia”, and stars a number of eccentric characters and dozens of literary references. After finding an old shopping list in a used book, one of the establishment’s book-loving owners narrates;
It pleases me so much to find odds and sods that have been left behind in books. This is evidence that books–even bad books–are organic: not just static and moribund repositories for calcifying ruminations. They grow and change as they pass from hand to hand. Here is a sign that readers, as well as writers, share the human need to leave some sign or symbol that we have passed this way. Nothing is more telling of this urge than marginalia: that cramped and often lunatic scribbling that some contentious soul has squeezed up against the sanctioned text.
I loved this musing because, although I don’t have a particularly harsh aversion towards e-readers and e-books, I will always feel a personal loyalty to the physical book, and this is one of the reasons. Just the other night, I found a 2004 receipt for a bag of sugar in my secondhand copy of The Unicorn, by Iris Murdoch. Not an exactly inspiring find, but a little piece of history nonetheless. Sugar was much cheaper eight years ago, would you believe it?
On a sidenote, when I was looking up further information on Bachelor Brothers, I found this cute Fodor’s article on literary-minded hotels, B&Bs and inns.
Contradictory to this loyalty I feel to the physical book, I do have to give a brief congratulations to the humble audiobook. In all my seventeen years of reading, I hadn’t listened to an audiobook until two months ago. I’d been reading a lot of contemporary literary fiction, and had recently committed myself to a Classics book club, so I decided I wanted to find a good hefty fantasy to read on the side for a bit of a breather. A friend had been recommending Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind to me for a long time, so I got myself a copy of the audiobook to put on my phone. Since the beginning of September, it has been keeping me company on my 20-minute walk each morning and afternoon along West 18th Avenue to and from my bus stop.
I didn’t realise how much listening to a story makes you feel more absorbed than reading one until this morning. I was in the middle of a particularly exciting scene in The Name of the Wind, but it’s Saturday and I don’t have to walk to to the bus stop. So I decided to pick up the physical copy of the book I have and take off my reading from there. It immediately felt like I had gone from being within the story, to being above it; from being inside, to looking inside.
I wouldn’t recommend going the audiobook route with just any kind of story, but a first-person narrated adventure like The Name of the Wind lends itself perfectly to such a format. And as fantasy goes, it’s pretty impressive, as big names in the genre such as George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin and Orson Scott Card can testify.
Until my next round of things-I-feel-the-Internet-might-want-to-hear-about,