Friday, November 23, 2007

My other car sticker is funny

Wendy Lesser in BookForum: While you are reading The Leopard, and particularly while you are rereading it, you are likely to feel that it is one of the greatest novels ever written. If this sense fades as you move away from the book, it is only because one's memory cannot fully retain the pungent artfulness of Lampedusa's brilliant sentences.

And this from Book World: I had a slight reluctance to picking up The Stone Gods after a rest from it. Somehow although I was enjoying it, the thought of it was hard. [Yet] every time I opened it again I loved it again and wondered why on earth I hadn't been racing back to it.

Why do so many books seem - excuse the pun - lesser once there is a distance from the reading experience? When this question first arose, when I was noting my favourite books of year, I knew there was something profound to say. Nothing to do with memory. Not pungency. Not art. Probably nothing.


  1. You are talking about the magic of the moment. It is always going to be greater than the moment remembered, well usually. Sometimes the very opposite happens, we remember a book as being better than what it was and rereading it is a disappointment. It's like when you hear a joke for the first time, it will always be funnier than subsequent renditions. If enough time has passed between readings then you're literally a different person that the one who first read the book.

    Whenever you distance yourself from anything though you provide scope for other things to get in the road. The fact is, Winterson is not an easy read – that's the pleasure of her books – and despite the fact you know you're going to enjoy reading her once you get into her, it does take a certain mindset to get you started.

  2. You're right of course. And I was wrong, because they're better as much as lesser in memory. It's just this year every book I've noted as a favourite has sown doubts in my mind. Is it really as good as I remember? Probably not. So why was I so enthusiastic at the time? It's to do with discovery, I suppose. There's a sense of hope in the discovery, which keeps one reading, and then it fades as it has to. Re-reading Handke's Repetition in the summer (the sixth or seventh reading) was a disappointment because it wasn't as luminous as it has been over the years. Yet if it isn't the book, why do we go there?

  3. I suppose there's always thin lines...perhaps the pleasure of a book is bound up in the mind-state it produces and there may come a danger that a reliance comes over us on the book to produce that deeper state like a magic key-"Open Sesame"- and the very expectation, virtually subconscious though it may be, may work against this deepening which can't be bullied into existence.
    Or maybe the very becoming familar with the words over repeated readings works against the desired state. This in relation to the Handke point rather than the original post.
    As to why do so many books seem lesser once there is a distance from the reading experience I suspect our inner wisdom sifts the greater from the lesser over time and only the more essential remain as aspects of ourselves, while the lesser gets quietly excreted into the compost heap of the irrelevant. Who mentioned bad poetry?

  4. Anonymous10:58 pm

    I find the reverse happens more often: a book which while reading seemed to have plenty of weaknesses, somehow smoothes out the further I get from it, and the flaws disappear.

    Oddly, for me The Leopard was a pleasure in anticipation (knowing that this was one of the books of the 20th century) but a real struggle midstream. And, perhaps as someone well attuned to Winterson's style and effects from reading and rereading her books so often, The Stone Gods was a blast, and a breeze.

  5. Leaving to one side the awkwardly subjective nature of these pronouncements (how on earth does he know what Lampedusan sentences do to us?), one criterion is how much the work asks of us. The kind of bracing moral rigor that makes Camus so powerful is also exhausting; one could say the same of Salter's dehydrated and crystalline impressionism. Up close, the work is its own reward -- but on the shelf, alongside easier and plummier reads, the pages look uncut all over again.



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