Reading with Intent

At times, my books selection may be eclectic. But I read primarily fictions, historical, contemporary, literary, classic, satires or speculative. I normally read several books at the same time.

In light of the pandemic, I have taken to ordering books online and in order to decide whether to purchase a particular fiction, I end up reading loads of extracts of promising reads and reviews from Amazon and various book sites. Browsing books on line is not quite as pleasurable as browsing around a bookstore where I can randomly pick up a novel, feel its prints, papers and flip to the back cover of the book to read the synopsis. Whenever I go to a bookshop, I have to restrain myself from going on a binge and end up carting  loads of books back home. I sometimes drop by a small independent bookshop at the shopping mall where I pick up some groceries. Due to the current unsettling situation, the bookshop has not brought in any new books, even then there are still books that I contemplate getting one day.

There is a bookshop on the street where my workplace is located. It carries mainly non-fictions and it has a wide selection of books on art, culture, places, cuisines and people. I often go to the book café in the bookshop to grab a coffee and sometimes a bite. Due to my frequent visits, I have become acquainted with the café operator who would share with me her adventures and fascinating stories from her days in France and elsewhere. The bookshop is having a major setback since there are no visitors from abroad to patronise the shop. One afternoon, when I had to return to the office, it started to shower heavily. I would get drenched if I braved the rain so I stepped back into the bookshop. Zadie Smith‘s new book, Intimations caught my eye. I bought a copy.

I have yet to read Zadie Smith‘s fictions and I would like to read them soon . There are many books that I should have read years ago but I only get round to reading them now. I used to read Somerset Maugham and Thomas Hardy but I do not read them now.

Here is the opening paragraph for Smith‘s essay entitled ‘Something to Do‘.

If you make things, if you are an ‘artist’ of whatever stripe, at some point you will be asked – may ask yourself – ‘why’ you act, sculpt , paint, whatever. In the writing world, this question never seems to get old. In each generation, a few too many people will feel moved to pen an essay called, inevitably, ‘Why I Write’ or Why Write’ under which title you’ll find a lot of convoluted, more or less self- regarding reasons and explanations. I’ve contributed to this genre myself.) Only a few of them are any good’ and none of them (including my own) see fit to mention the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away — as it is at the moment — seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit : it’s something to do. ‘

Life is doing time but as cliché, as it may sound, we should do something we love and experience love while doing whatever we are doing. Love is not limited to romantic love. Our hearts must be open to feel the connections with our surroundings. It is compelling for us to keep calm and be aware of our thought process in present challenging times.

Smith writes,

And yet, in my case, I can’t let it go : old habits die hard. I can’t rid myself of the need to do ‘something’, to make ‘something’, to feel that this new expanse of time hasn’t been ‘wasted’. Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something’, that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.’

I do not go for facials and I do not do manicure because I cannot hold a book to read during these beauty treatments. I used to pamper myself in getting my hair washed and dry at the hair salon so I could do some reading in between school runs, errands and work. My indulgence used to be a foot massage or a pedicure since it could accommodate reading. These days, my indulgence is reading a page or two while sipping coffee at a café on a work day or after my weekly workout at the gym.

There are six personal essays in Intimations. The following passage from Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus) written by Zadie Smith resonates with me :

Because of the amount of time they take, I have never had a pedicure. I don’t think I’ve had more than five manicures in twenty years, primarily because you can’t read a book at the same time. Any beauty treatment that doesn’t accommodate reading – or takes much more than ten minutes – I find I can’t accept, and so I don’t any of them except grey hair removal ( which you can both read and write through) and eyebrow threading, which takes four minutes, and even then I sometimes try to hold folded New Yorker above my head until the girl bats it away in irritation.’

Years ago, when I tried to maximize my time for reading, I placed a magazine in front of me while warming up before picking up the pace to run on the treadmill. That proved to be counterproductive for both reading and exercise. For safety reasons, it is definitely not advisable to read while one is on the treadmill.

In another book of essays by Zadie Smith entitled ‘ Changing My Mind’ , Smith writes about reading and writing and in the section on ‘ Remembering’, she quotes a passage from the 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace from Larry McCaffery’s Dalley Archive Press. Here is an excerpt:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to act for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

Zadie Smith is articulate and her essays are brilliant, friendly and engaging.

Reading offers us a space to ourselves and a freedom to choose what we want to read.

I compartmentalise my reading in that I will read different books at various intervals during the week or at different time of the day. Some books are best read in one sitting. One such novel is In the Café of Lost Youth written by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Euan Cameron. 

The story is about Jacqueline Delanque, a young girl growing up in poverty in Montmartre. She is on a restless quest to an unknowable destination. She frequents the Café Condé where young students, aspiring writers and world-weary academics go.  They are the lost youth who wander in and they are all in search of the same elusive something. There are also older customers who never make reference of their past.

At Le Condé, Jacqueline was different from the others. They named her “Louki” .
 ‘Those who frequented Le Condé would often be carrying a book, its cover stained with wine, which they would lay casually on the table. Les Chants de Maldoror, Les Illuminations, Les Barricades mystérieuses. But she, to begin with, was always empty-handed. Then, she probably wanted to be like the others, and one day, at Le Condé, I caught her one her own, reading. From then on, her book never left her.’

She used to go to Mattel, a stationer’s and bookseller’s shop on boulevard de Clichy that stays open until one o’clock in the morning.In Jacqueline’s narrative,“ Yes, this bookshop was not merely a refuge but also a stage in my life. I often stayed there until closing time.”“ I wasn’t truly myself except at the moment I was running away. My only good memories are memories of flight or escape. But life always got the upper hand.” 

Sometimes life will somehow get you and you imagine or wish you could just run away like Holly Golightly but you know you just have to let go of whatever that affects you. I read because I like to read. When I feel overwhelmed and unsettled, I pick up a book and start reading. I feel better when I am able to engage in some reading. I also feel better when I manage to write, whether it is just casual jottings, ramblings or a story. Reading enables me to engage with a character in the fiction. Often fictions are based on real people and their experiences.

To get its rhythm, In the Café of Lost Youth has to be read without interruptions from start to finish. The story is told from different perspectives by four narrators, a young student who goes to the Café Condé, Roland, Louki and Pierre Caisley, a private investigator engaged by Louki’s husband. The mood is melancholic and affecting as the different narrations construct a picture of Jacqueline and what happened to her. Patrick Modiano is crafty at capturing the scenes of  old streets in Paris and  the nostalgic feel that evokes memories of the indefinable past and lost youth.  


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