Lost in a Book

Some years back, when my mother was still alive, I called her one day to find out how she was doing. “I’m a little tired today,” she said, “because I didn’t get much sleep last night.” What kept you up? I asked. “Well,” she answered, “you know I always read a little bit before I fall asleep. I had just finished a book, so I picked up a new one. I started to read it, and when I looked up it was dawn.” (The book, by the way, was Zola’s novel Germinal.) She was so transported by the book that she didn’t realise she was reading through the night.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever quite read through the night without knowing it, but often enough I do get very wrapped up in a book. I lose all my attention to the world outside the book. I don’t hear anything, I don’t see anything outside of the book, and it can be a bit of a shock when I come back to reality. I also cry a lot when I read. Even if I’ve read a book before, even if I know exactly what’s going to happen, I can still get all choked up. I have no idea how or why this happens. But it does.

For instance, I recently reread Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart. I know the book very well, I’ve probably read it at least a half dozen times. And yet once again I got all choked up towards the end, when…. But I won’t tell you, in case you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it. It’s one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read (along with about 100 others). It’s also one of the best-constructed novels I’ve ever read. It doesn’t show off its cleverness, and you probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking, but it’s a marvel of narrative architecture. My own feeling is that the skill of the construction is directly connected to the emotional power of the book.

In general, I think there’s a high correlation between the technical excellence of a work of art and its emotional power. Bach knew what he was doing, Beethoven knew what he was doing, Willa Cather knew what she was doing.

The point of all this is to explain why I talk about books the way I do. On the one hand, I love the books I love because they have a kind of magic. On the other hand, I’m convinced that my own appreciation for a book is increased when I see how it’s put together. I feel the same way about music. I’ve spent many hours analyzing Bach’s fugues, for instance, or Beethoven’s sonatas, and I love the pieces more when I see how they are made. So when I talk about a novel, I’m likely to talk about it sort of the way a music theorist talks about a piece of music. The discussion can get kind of technical at times, because art can get kind of technical. But always behind that technical discussion there’s the experience of being transported.

I don’t know how to talk about that experience, except to say Wow!! There it is!! Did you see that!! But I do know how to talk about the technique that creates that Wow!! And that’s part of what I want to do in this blog. Some people won’t be sympathetic to this approach. That’s fine. But if you’re the kind of person who wants to watch the gears move inside the watch, then I hope you will find something here to entertain you. Drop me a line with thoughts and suggestions.

7 thoughts on “Lost in a Book

  1. Our mutual friend Karen Hogan shared this blog with me and I am so glad she did. What are your thoughts about the spoken words of literature? I’m listening to Louise Erdrich right now, reading her book “The Night Watchman” and it’s spellbinding. In this era of social isolation, I’m aware of sometimes smiling behind my mask as I walk daily, struck by not only her words but her voice.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading the blog and thanks for your interesting comment. I grew up with spoken literature. My Dad read to us often, and not just when I was very young. My first introduction to Twain and Dickens was through listening to my Dad read to us—and of course poetry. He read me Browning, A. E. Housman, Blake, and so on. So the voice was an essential aspect of my experience of literature. When I was teaching I would always urge my students to read their essays out loud. I always try to listen to the sound of what I’m reading, even when I’m reading silently. The first chapter of the book I’m working on now talks a lot about the sounds of language, and my first example is from Kipling’s Just So Stories, which was a favorite of mine when I was young. Prose should sound as good as poetry.

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  2. This is very interesting. Richard Lanham, in Analyzing Prose, talks about the difference between looking at and through language as a kind of switch – it’s either one way or the other, though one can toggle back and forth at various speeds. I find his whole discussion pretty compelling, but the switch idea doesn’t fit all that comfortably with my experience of the pleasure of seeing how a text works and the enjoyment of losing myself in a book. The relationship seems more complex than any speed of back-and-forth toggling. I wonder if your sense of the correlation between technical excellence and emotional power can help us tease out that complexity. Do you get lost in a book or piece of music differently after you’ve done the analysis that shows its technical excellence? Does the emotional power of a work rely on some of awareness of technical excellence?
    Also, this interesting exchange about reading aloud reminds me that when I read aloud to my daughter, I’m often more aware of the relationship between a sentence’s construction and its sense than when I read silently (though I do often pay more attention to one or the other).

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  3. A fascinating comment on a fascinating question. I don’t think I have Lanham’s toggling experience, though I’m not sure that I can know for sure. I wonder if he has been influenced by how we see the famous rabbit/duck image—it’s either a rabbit or a duck but never both at once (so say the psychologists). If I do toggle, the speed is so fast that I don’t notice it. Many people say that they can’t be aware of the technical stuff and also have the getting lost experience at the same time. Some people say that knowing the technical stuff actually gets in the way of the experience. I find that I have a deeper experience when I know the technical stuff. Same with music. People just differ. Whatever your manner of experience, it’s easy to imagine that must be everyone’s manner of experience, until you find out, perhaps with some shock, that it’s not so. I do know that I can be in the midst of crying over the fate of the heroine while I am busy diagramming the sentences. How about you? Do you analyze while you read? Does analysis get in the way of getting lost in the book?

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    1. I can’t remember if Lanham mentions the duck/rabbit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, or at least had it in mind. Which is at and which is through? I do analyze, or at least notice, some technical stuff while I read and generally find that it enhances my experience. It occurs to me that above, I associated getting lost in book with being emotionally involved in a fictional world. But I could also say that I get lost in a book when I am consciously choosing to focus on technical analysis. I wouldn’t say that these experiences are the same kind of getting lost in something but I don’t find them mutually exclusive. I probably think of it more as layers.
      I will also admit that it does not take technical excellence to make me cry! I mean, I’m sure that some of the people who make dog food commercials know what they’re doing more than others, but I’m not sure that my emotional response it attributable to their skill…

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  4. I had an interesting experience many years ago, when I was making my living as a classical guitar teacher. My general pedagogical practice was to introduce a little theory at a time. I had a student, a woman in her mid-forties, who had just finished the elementary book and was starting to play little pieces. I gave her a little minuet by Fernando Sor, and after she could play it pretty well, I went through an analysis of the piece with her. It was the first piece she had played that had any interesting structure, so it was the first piece I analyzed for her. It had a ternary structure, ABA, (8+8/8/8+8), but in the second A the melody was decorated, so the two A sections didn’t look or sound identical. After I finished my explanation I could see that she seemed a little upset. I asked her what the problem was, and she answered, “All the time I thought composers just wrote by inspiration.” Evidently I had shattered her illusions. I don’t doubt the importance of inspiration, but I also think that most good artists know they are doing. They may or not be able to verbally articulate that knowledge, but they know.

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  5. Maybe just as for some readers the experience of technical excellence and emotional power go together, for some writers knowing what they’re doing technically and being inspired go together. I’m no artist, but it can feel pretty great to figure out how to say what I want to say in a way that I like.

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