Monday, May 27, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
What do you do physically while reading a book?
Do you lounge in an armchair and therefore court sleep or at least inattention to the text? Sometimes, up against reviewing deadlines and knowing that I have to get through a book in a set time, I keep myself awake by standing up as I read, balancing an open book on one of my wife’s music stands.
Do you sit with your book at the kitchen table, so that you can enjoy the company of your family or flat-mates as you read? Again, you could be courting inattention even if you enjoy the gregariousness.
Or do you – as I do when I’m wrestling with a really serious tome – sit at your desk student-style, hunched over the text and making notes?
There are many wrong postures in which to read a book. Lying on a bed is one of the worst; and if you think you can read seriously while lounging on the beach, then what you are reading is probably airport-lounge writing.
Apart from the inappropriate postures, though, there are other bad habits you can get into when reading.
One of my own worst habits is reading against a background of music. I hasten to say, there are some kinds of writing that I would never put to a soundtrack.
I would never have music playing while I was reading poetry. The more overt rhythms of music would clash with the more subtle metres of poetry, and I would do justice to neither.
Nevertheless, I do have this habit of putting on some jazz or orchestral music when reading other genres.
And sometimes I get extra clever by trying to make the music appropriate to the text.
I am reading the Argentinian Tomas Eloy Martinez’s weird and surreal Santa Evita, a “biography” of the corpse of Eva Peron. So on I put my double CD set of Carlos Gardel, together with my double CD set of tangos by various other artists of the 1930s and 1940s, reflecting that some of them would have been known to, and heard by, Evita when she was alive.
I read Therese Anne Fowler’s recent novel Z, about the somewhat unhinged Zelda Fitzgerald and her dazzling, destructive life in the 1920s. And on goes my collection of Bix Baederbecke and Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and the other exponents of “hot” jazz in the 1920s, to whose beat Zelda could well have Charleston-ed and Black-Bottomed.
I can’t pull this trick for too many books, and if I were reading some postmodern piece of cyber-punk, I admit I wouldn’t have the music to accommodate it. But my last reading of Henry Fielding was accompanied by Handel oratorios.
Part of the attraction of this practice is the raising of ghosts. To read about a particular past against the very noises of that past can both conjure up appropriate imagery and make the heart skip a beat. It reminds me of the time when I was researching an opera programme note to do with an opera by Verdi; and as I scribbled, I had playing a CD re-pressing and re-mastering and expert restoration of primitive sound recordings from the earliest 1900s. One was a fierce baritone singing Iago’s demonic creed from Otello. I was stunned as I realised that this very voice would have been singing when Verdi was still alive to hear it.
But I digress (as I often do when improvising these “Something Thoughtfuls”).
Reading against music raises that whole thorny issue of mood music. Musicians might object (quite rightly) that attending to a text, while your sound-system blares, debases the status of music to mere background noise. And from the literary perspective, even if poetry is exempted, there is always the possibility that music will detract from the rhythms of prose or other writing and become a mere distraction.
So – to read in comparative silence or to read with music playing? Or is this a false dichotomy in a world where it’s hard to steer clear of all noise while you are reading?