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.