The chemistry between a book and reader

John Self at his blog The Asylum once spoke of the chemistry between a book and its reader. That personal connection without which even the greatest book cannot sing. Whether a book speaks to you or not is an intensely personal matter, and perhaps a slightly random one too. I’ve read books I could tell were well written but that didn’t move me, and others which felt written for me personally but which I know others found dull or ordinary.

One of the most exciting things for me in literature is that feeling I sometimes gets that a book was written for me alone; that a paragraph or section was written with my thoughts in mind; that had I the talent I could well have written it myself.

I recently finished Raymond Radiguet’s Count d’Orgel. I didn’t take to it. Others have, but for me the chemistry was lacking. It had a foreword though which did resonate, and by one of those small coincidences that life is so full of was directly relevant to a blog post (this one) that I was already planning. Here’s that foreword:

Tis the good reader that makes the good book;
in every book he finds passages which seem confidences
or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably meant
for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility
of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as
in a mine; until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What got me thinking about all this was György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell. After the LRB Central European Classics event (which I wrote about here) I was browsing the new Penguin Central European range in the LRB bookshop. I wasn’t sure about the Faludy, so I flicked through the pages to get a feel for it. I opened it at page 135, and I read a passage that had I but the talent I could have written myself. It’s not a happy passage, but it’s a true one for me and not all truths are happy ones.

Here’s the quote:

Now again I could have screamed with despair. One day, twenty or fifty years hence, what did it matter, I would have to die and from then on it would be as if I had never lived. Billions of new variations of man would be born, but my variation would never, never return. I would rather be sick and miserable, a cripple suffering the pains of hell, than not be at all. Yet complete annihiliation was inescapable. God willing I should one day be given a place of honour in the Kerepes Cemetery of Budapest, there would be a marble column with my name on it in gold – but who would care? By the year three thousand everyone would have forgotten my name, by the year five thousand the marble column would have turned to dust, the cemetery would have disappeared under a wheat field, a heap of ruins, an industrial plant or the jungle, the language in which I wrote would also have disappeared and the nation to which I belonged would have died out. Even this second annihilation would not be the end. Then the sun would lose its heat, the earth collide with another heavenly body or explode, and Michelangelo’s statues and Beethoven’s symphonies would be flung after me into Nirvana.

I love the little “God willing” joke in that passage.

Now, as I say that’s gloomy stuff and I’m generally a pretty cheery fellow (as was Faludy I understand). What’s interesting though for me is that it’s a feeling I’ve often had. That realisation that not only will I end, but so will all memory of me, and then all memory of the civilisation of which I was part, and then the species and all evidence that life ever even existed. It’s a bleak and sobering thought. It’s a thought so large it’s hard to know what to do with it (but of course, it also leads to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what I do with it).

As La Rochefoucauld said, we cannot look directly at either the sun or death.

So, Faludy, writing years before my birth, wrote my nighttime terrors down on a page. The section just before that one speaks of waking up in the night panicked, and of rushing out to find company. I’ve done that in the past. It happens less now thankfully. Across this dizzying void though and this existential fear there’s an improbable miracle. That not only am I not the only one to have felt this (I never thought I was), but that someone wrote it down and left it there for me to find.

That’s a wonderful thing. And whether it’s a passage like that which speaks of secret fears, or a passage that speaks of hopes or dreams or deepest beliefs, there’s something quite magical in the fact that we can open a book and find within it ourselves.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “The chemistry between a book and reader

  1. This stuff always happens to me nowadays! Almost every book, in fact. All started with Coetzee, who seemed to write whole books by me.
    For a long time, I used to feel so bewildered that the people I showed these passages to looked up at me and said, “So?” Such a depressing bloody word.

  2. This is a bit of a coincidence. As I walked to the computer, I was thinking about how we decide whether or not we like people in a few seconds after we meet them for the first time. There’s a spark there or there isn’t. From that thought, I found your post. Books have that same spark or they can. Sometimes not, of course.

    I had a prof who argued that writers create to work out their personal problems, fears, doubts etc. I think we read for the same reasons. There’s always the entertainment factor too. I often wonder why I love to read about people I wouldn’t tolerate in my personal life.

    On a final note, your comments about oblivion remind me of a poem. I’ll have to dig it out.

  3. I have been having a similar experience with Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still, subtitled “A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing,” which I’m currently reading.

    Parks suffers – or suffered, perhaps, as I haven’t got to the end of the book yet… – from chronic prostate/pelvic pains and urinary troubles. I do not, but I am a practised hypochondriac in many other areas, and it has been fascinating to see my own ruminative behaviour and obsessively worrisome thinking reflected on the page. In some ways the relentless searching for something which cannot be found (in this case, a solution to his prostate pain) makes the book read a little like a Beckett or Kafka story, of a man confused by the world, or driven to solve that which is ultimately irrelevant in the face of death.

    And that large thought that Faludy expresses in the passage you quote is, I suppose, what are often referred to as intimations of mortality. (Close in spirit to what Beckett’s work – him again! – is often perceived as dealing with.) I first had those when I turned 30, and fully expect them to return larger than ever when I hit 40 in a few years.

  4. That so would depress Ronak. But then, it’s the personal nature of it which makes it so powerful when it happens.

    Guy, as I said, the small coincidences that life is so full of…

    In part I read to experience lives not my own and to gain an insight into them. We’re all so ourselves. Books are the nearest thing to telepathy humanity has.

    John, intimations of mortality, definitely. I started having them as a teenager, but they became much more real in my 30s. The unoriginality of that doesn’t diminish its power.

  5. I know exactly what you mean both about the relief to read that someone wrote down your most intimate thoughts and fears and about the happiness to discover lives and universes far from ourselves.

    Because although we all want to be unique, we are also pleased to feel “normal” and to know someone else felt that way.

    Some authors are like meeting a new friend or a new love. It is a very strong feeling and comfort.

    I will always be grateful to have found that book by Romain Gary in that rented flat as I told in my first post, because I had a immediate connection with his mind, his way of thinking. He helped me to put my head out of the swamps of teenage years. I still don’t know how I could feel so closely bound to that story of an ageing man falling in love with a very young woman.

    Reading latin authors, especially poetry is very powerful too. They’re so far and still so close from us that you slightly touch with your fingertips the everlasting core of mankind.

    I read the comments, we seem to be all in our 30s, I wonder if it is a coincidence or not.

    And also, thanks to Quino for creating Mafalda (see my gravatar). I know nothing funnier and healthier when a veil of gloom falls upon me.

  6. A thought proviking post. The interaction between a book and its reader is a remarkable thing and I am sure that no two people experience a book in the same way. I think it is important also to remember that books change people – they are not the same entity when they have finished a book – sometimes its as though a realignment of their brain cells takes place.

  7. Thomas Hardy’s The To-Be-Forgotten

    I heard a small sad sound,
    And stood awhile among the tombs around.
    “Wherefore, old friends,” said I, “are you distrest,
    Now, screened from life’s unrest?”

    -“Oh, not at being here;
    But that our future second death is near;
    When, with the living, memory of us numbs,
    And blank oblivion comes!

    That’s just the first two verses of eight.
    Reminds me of some of the things you said in the post.

  8. @bookaroundthecorner: I’m 18, not in my thirties.

    @Max: True that the power comes from the intense personality, but I’m still to fully come to terms with how personal this stuff is. I understand that it’s personal, but I’m still bewildered every time the universe demonstrates it to me.

  9. GB Steve

    The thing that gets me is not so much death but the realisation that I can only read a finite number of books. And that I can work that out.

    Being in my mid forties, and if I read one a week until I’m eighty, that’s only another 1,820 books. That’s about the number of books published in 3 days in the US.

    What should I read next?

  10. Ronak M Soni : Sorry I included you in a bunch of old people 🙂

    GB Steve : the number of almost 2000 books published in 3 days makes me dizzy.
    “What should I read next ?” Well, that’s also why I started blogging, to find some unexpected path in the forest of literature.

  11. Sort of related but not totally is the notion of being the “ideal reader” for certain book/s. (I’m not talking about what makes a good reader here.) I think it answers to some degree your opening comment about books being well-written but not appealing. I like the idea of “ideal reader” to explain this – well, as you call it – chemistry. That essence that makes one person love a book while it leaves another person cold. I for example am an ideal reader for Jane Austen!

  12. This is something that has frustrated me for a long time. The example I usually use is opera but it applies to reading and just about everything. I don’t like opera. This bothers me because I love pretty much all classical music from Gregorian chant to minimalism and everything in between – apart from opera. Clearly there are thousands upon thousands of people who love it, who sit in tears listening to it, and yet no matter how much I grin and bear it I can’t make that connect with it. It’s not choral music. I love to listen to choirs but as soon as a soloist stands up there I start to feel uncomfortable. And so with books. People have been telling me to read this book or that book all my life but I find reading a commitment – I’m going to be giving up five or six hours to this thing, perhaps more, and I’ll never get that time back and so I’m wary. I’ve literally spent three hours in a bookshop and come out empty-handed in case I picked the wrong book.

    Of course when you find the right book you want everyone and his kid brother to experience it too and it’s often deflating to see them shrug after they’ve read it: “It was all right. I suppose. If you like that kind of thing.”

  13. Powell is very good on that Jim, there’s a bit in one of his where the protagonist Nick Jenkins reflects that to those who read the disinterest of those who don’t is incomprehensible.

    So too among those of us who do, I find it extraordinary that people aren’t rushing out to read say Arthur Schnitzler but so too does say Trevor Berrett find it incredible I think Cormac McCarthy is good but not great.

    I tend to dislike being recommended books. The recommendation is usually not a great fit for me and there’s a risk of insulting by saying “actually, I’d rather tear my eye out with a rusty spoon than read this novel which has apparently changed your life but which to me looks suspiciously banal.” Also, there’s a risk people might find that response a touch snobbish…

  14. I don’t exactly agree with you on the recommendation thing. Of course, I’ve had the same experience than you and the embarrasing moment when you have to be honest but not too much.
    The point is more on the “who” and “how”.
    That is “who recommended the book” : if it comes from someone who knows your tastes, the recommendation may be good.
    And how the book was recommended : if someone lends you the book without your asking for it, then it’s too pushy and very annoying. If it’s just a name and then you’re free to browse through it in a book shop and decide to read it or not, I’m fine with receiving recommendations.
    Let’s not see the bottle half empty : it is still a way to discover new authors.
    Our problem with that also come from ourselves : we are too dutiful and respectful. We don’t allow ourselves to drop a book when we think it boring or uninteresting. Maybe we should give ourselves that freedom.

  15. I’m exaggerating a bit I admit. I was talking more about those situations where someone says “oh, you like books? I read a book recently I really loved”.

    A recommendation from a fellow blogger on the other hand, or a spouse or friend with taste one trusts, that’s a very different matter.

    My most depressing one recently was an email from Amazon, which really did basically say “We’ve noticed you’ve recently bought some books. Here are some recommendations for other books.” and then had a series of random book selections.

    I definitely agree with your final point.

  16. Oh! I know what you mean about the “you like books ?” It happened to me at work with a director, whose favorite author happened to be… Patrick Cauvin, a French writer I could compare with Douglas Kennedy. That required diplomatic skills…
    When I read your comment, I didn’t think of computer run recommendations. Of course, these ones are annoying but at least you can delete them without hurting anyone’s feelings !

  17. Pingback: If you value my sanity, please don’t lend me your books…unless I ask for them « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  18. One of the most exciting things for me in literature is that feeling I sometimes gets that a book was written for me alone; that a paragraph or section was written with my thoughts in mind; that had I the talent I could well have written it myself.

    Yes, a thousand times yes. I’ve always believed in the ideal reader. Someone out there has something inside him that will just snap into place upon reading a writer’s words. Like you, there are some books I respect, admire, but they will never be personal. And then there are books that, yes, seems like were written for me alone. Words that feel like the writer had crawled inside my head for a long time, just watching, getting comfortable.

    It’s difficult to recommend books, really. I try to sidestep: “If you’ve ever wanted to kiss anyone you shouldn’t, or wonder what could’ve happened if you did — then read The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver.” Reading is always personal, but certain books are simply you.

  19. Exactly. I’ve not much to add actually, as that’s exactly what I was getting at.

    Quick question, that Cecilia book you show on your virtual nightstand (gorgeous cover), is that still on your TBR pile? I couldn’t see a review on your site.

    Shallow I know to be so taken by a cover, but it is a gorgeous cover and the Europa series are often pretty good.

  20. @ Max — I’ve just finished reading Cecilia, and yes, I bought it because it was from Europa, and its cover was just too gorgeous. I’m a bit on the fence about this one — it’s only my second Europa, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. Definitely have to mull over this one.

  21. Sasha,

    Looking about I’ve seen others make similarly uncertain comments about it. Will you be writing about it?

  22. @Max — Yes, I think I will. There’s an odd sort of disappointment attached to this one, and like I said, I have to think about it really hard.

  23. Great. I’ve subscribed to your blog Sasha so hopefully I’ll get an email once you do.

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