Thursday, January 13, 2011

Great reading experiences

No, I'm not talking about your experiences reading your favorite books, but your favorite experiences reading books.  That is, the times you most enjoyed the act of reading.  I was thinking about this tonight because I've been wondering about the incredibly intense pleasure I feel reading thrillers, even when they're not especially good.  What's up with that?  I am already forgetting the one I read a couple of days ago (although the one I read yesterday will likely stick with me a while), but I get a delightful little chill thinking about the hours I spent lying on the sofa, in my pajamas, in the middle of the day, zooming through its mass-market pages before a roaring fire.  (Can you tell classes haven't started yet?)  I also recall the intense pleasure of hiding in our bedroom at our rental house at the Jersey shore one August, reading Black Dahlia Avenger.

Most of the books whose contents have stuck with me have become unmoored form the circumstances in which I read them.  Not all--Rhian pointed out that she has rather unpleasant memories of reading Anna Karenina: she was temping at the Teamsters' Union and reading at her desk.  I, on the other hand, read Anna K while sipping liquor in our friend's friend's log cabin (insofar as a four-bedroom rustic quasi-mansion with satellite dish and wet bar can be called a cabin) on the Madison River in southern Montana.  But I couldn't tell you what it was like reading, say, any Alice Munro story--the intensity of the fiction, I suppose, has overridden the real-world circumstances of my reading it.

I guess a book has to reach a certain threshold of quality before it can generate a memorable reading experience--one has to be into it, after all.  But in most circumstances, at least for me, it can't be too good, so good as to make the world around it disappear.  Aside from Anna K, I most strongly remember reading books that I read without much effort...the ones that seemed to flow into me.  Like, I suppose, sipping liquor in a log mansion.

18 comments:

rmellis said...

I had never thought that the ideal reading experience book might be one somewhat short of great. But yeah: most recent, most delicious reading experience for me: reading The Haunting of Hill House in the den with the woodstove, all day, no one else at home. The couch and the fire in the stove were *just as good* as the book.

jrlennon said...

Where were the rest of us?

rmellis said...

You faded from existence for a day.

Michael Garberich said...

A coincidence?

I tweeted on this very idea three days ago. I was 170 pages into Remainder and could feel it becoming a top 3 reading experience. I speculated whether or not it would overtake White Teeth at the number 3 spot, whose placing I'd just thought of for the purposes of the tweet.

In the end, it didn't. Maybe because after 170 pages it becomes a different kind of book. Maybe because I ruined the experience by becoming conscious of its potential. The high point might have been when the guy was looking at the still concierge in the hockey mask during a run through, asking her if she knew what to do. "Just stand here." Exactly.

Other three experiences:

1. Reading my first Murakami, Wind-up Bird Chronicle, in my parents' home during the summer immediately following studying abroad in 2006. For months and months I'd been seeing the display for Kafka on the Shore in FNAC, with no idea about it or its author. Changed the make-up of my reading world. Perfect timing.

2. The first time I read the Hour of the Star in college. I owe this one to a professor who cried if he dwelled too long on the book's many silences. He was also reduced to tears during a discussion of To the Lighthouse, when we came to the Time Passes segment and Mrs. Ramsay passed away inside those stiff brackets. His teaching really made Hour of the Star important for me--I'd go on to read it 2 more times for classes and 3 more times on my own--and he will forever be a part of my experience with it.

3. Reading White Teeth while studying abroad. It came in a bundle with Everything is Illuminated and Notes on a Scandal. Must have been promoting bright young novelists. Up until then I was trying really hard to convince myself I liked books and literature. Reading this alone over a couple of nights during the new labor law youth protests of 2006 was mysteriously formative, even at the time.

jrlennon said...

Nice, thanks for sharing those! Gonna go follow you now on twitter.

rmellis said...

Remainder might also be one of my top experiences -- but *especially* the ending. I was sitting right here at the kitchen table, unable to read fast enough.

I want that experience MORE OFTEN. What is it, two or three times a year? Maybe only once a year? Not enough.

Michael Garberich said...

twitter id: darschoof. already @'ed you.

rhian: for what it's worth, i read the last two chapters of Remainder in one furious sitting. but by then whatever i'd been feeling that had me so excited about it had left me. i think it's because i had been thinking for some time that the idea of crossing over into real life (and bringing its dangers with it) was already there, implied in the re-enactments and stalking the story the whole time, and i wanted to see what could be done if we only ever remained in the supposedly safe realm of re-enactment. because remaining in the conceptual world had its own real danger, which i had been thinking would be much more difficult to pull off artfully and convincingly, without simply having the story and simply repeat itself in an infinite loop. although, as we know, it both does and does not.

jon said...

Reading 'Light in August' on my Fall Creek porch the summer my first marriage ended. Also that summer, on that porch, 'Cathedrals'...so appropriate, I felt like I was living its pages.
And Christmas: Chandler's The Little Sister in my mother's 5th Avenue apartment...it made me start my second novel...and another Christmas, Book 2 of Spenser's Faerie Queene, lying on my couch in front of a kerosene heater, kids away, all alone, reading aloud for hours and hours.
I have tried to recreate those times and many others, but it just has to happen, the perfect book, the perfect setting, the receptive mood.

george said...

Funny that you should recall your reding of Anna Karenina; I remember coming across you one day in Ithaca, while you were walking and (re)reading that novel.

I remember reading Calvino's *Invisible Cities* as I traveled from Chicago to Albuquerque by train. I think somewhere in my notebooks there's a terrible line like: "Lawrence, Kansas, city of desire and pinball, a purple city."

jrlennon said...

Jon, I think you're right, it has to just happen. A shame you can't force it!

George, ha!, it was probably still my first reading, we were only at that cabin for like two days. I wish we could all sort of create a Google Street View of the past out of memories of each other.

jrlennon said...

Whoops, George, Rhian points out you said "Ithaca"...that was clearly my second reading of the book, for my book group!

violentbore said...

Rhian: I too am a junky for those rare occasions in literature and film when an ending absolutely floors me. This isn't to say such endings are perfect, but perfect to me.

After days and days of close examination of Elias Canetti's Auto-da-fe, I can't quite describe the feeling of childish satisfaction I experienced when reading the last lines.

Others are somewhat faster-burning, such as Lydia Davis' French Lesson I, though just as invigorating.

Recently, I can't think of a film that ended as well as There Will Be Blood. Yes, the milkshake line has transformed into something kitchy and quotable, but the immediacy of the close beyond that moment made for a perfect ending!

More recently, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere (a film I enjoyed) could have had one of these endings, but may have lingered a bit longer than necessary. No spoilers, but I'd be interested to know if anyone who's seen it might agree.

[ending]

KooKooKaChoo said...

Just happened to have a copy of the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis on my desk.

Found The French Lesson and...

...wow.

That was fun. Thanks violentbore.

(And now I'll always remember Ward Six when I think of that story!)

5 Red Pandas said...

This summer I read The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam and when I finished I was so moved I opened the book and wrote on one of the blank pages in front exactly how I felt about the book so I'd remember how I'd felt upon finishing it. I was in Taiwan & besides bad movies the only thing I had to connect me to Western culture were all the books I'd brought with me. It was an intense experience made more so by the fact that most of the world around me was happening in languages I mostly don't understand.

Pete said...

I read Lolita for the first time a few summers ago while on vacation in Nantucket-- that was a great experience. We rented a house with friends, and I read out on the back porch while my son took his afternoon naps. My friend brought his French press, so we'd brew up coffee and enjoy the afternoon sun. It was a great reading experience, so much so that next summer's vacation I read Pale Fire.

I also remember reading Airframe by Michael Crichton on a train. I had just graduated college that year and made the big move from PA to New York City. I took the Amtrak home for the holidays where someone gave me a hardcover of the book. Reading on a train is automatically a great experience. Add to that: visiting your parents as a new adult, and NYC.

One more -- I got drunk for the very first time in my life, on my father's bourbon, while reading Catcher In the Rye. I may have been 12? 13? I was reading it up in my bedroom, and when I got to the part where Holden orders a bourbon and water, I decided to check that out... several sneaky visits down to the liquor cabinet later, and I was wasted!

gvNL said...

Reading The Magic Mountain at age nineteen while recovering in hospital from a collapsed lung was a special experience (more or less all characters are lung patients, there's a group who call themselves 'The whistling lung', etc.)

The day before yesterday I read Willam Gass' The Pedersen Kid. Afterwards I was kept awake for the whole night - for reasons too long to tell - and I kept going over the story till it was etched in my brain. Night and story have become one experience.

I wonder how many defining reading experiences one can have. I don't mean individual books, I mean living with an author and feeding yourself with everything you can lay your hands on - diaries, letters, etc. - in a way that it changes your outlook on life and literature. Kafka, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky. Svevo is in that group, as is Carver. Nicholson Baker is probably my most recent one. But how many? Ten, a dozen?... Fifteen perhaps? After age thirty they get less and less.

jrlennon said...

Ohhh, we have a good Nicholson Baker experience...Rhian and I read "Vox" out loud to each other on a long car trip in Western Montana. Big fun.

McQ said...

Will have to ruminate on my *greatest* reading experiences, but the most recent was reading Heidi while actually in the Swiss Alps a few weeks ago. I'm not sure I'd ever read it before (my memories are all of the Shirley Temple movie) but I was charmed by the story, and to be able to look up from the page and see snow-covered mountains right out the window - thrilling! Of course, the excellent cheese, chocolate and glühwein at my side didn't hurt, either...