If someone says “a screaming comes across the sky”, they’ve either been reading a big book or have remembered a list of clever opening first lines
I recently read an article that suggested that novel reading is in decline. Although I also read another article that says that teenage reading is simultaneously growing and declining.
Perhaps the long and the short of it all is that reading is changing, just like everything else in the world, and we should just accept that change happens, and leave it at that.
I also read a commentary from a very serious American news source that said that the amount of supposedly factual material published on the internet which is palpably untrue is now greater than the amount of material that is obviously true.
But, of course, that story might not be right.
However, it is strange to think that the amount of reading might be going down in an era in which it is easier than ever to bring one’s writing to the world. For whereas in the past one might have to persuade a publisher to take one’s work for a magazine or book, one can now write a blog, publish via Kindle, or indeed self-publish and sell on-line.
All of which made me think about the novels I’ve read. I’ve no idea how many, but there are certainly quite a few. And then I got to thinking about first lines of novels, lines like “A screaming comes across the sky,” from Gravity’s Rainbow.
I love that line, and I think of it today because aside from reading an article that says people are not reading books any more, I also just read a blog in which an American lady reviews someone else’s list of 100 best opening lines of novels and then makes her comment on each one. In this list the “screaming” line quoted above comes third in the top 100. The reviewer, however, was unimpressed.
Her objection was something to do with whether “screaming” is a noun or an omnipolitical juxtaposition or something – I sort of lost the will to live after a few words.
And from there my thought turned to the notion that:
a) the poor lady would never have the pleasure of reading the novel which many others have found to be one of the great works of the 20th century,
b) if reading novels is in decline then literary critics probably need to take a lot of the blame,
c) the moment one learns English, complications set in. Which is also the first line of a novel – in this case “Chromos” by Felipe Alfau. The book includes a whole range of characters who defy the wishes of the author in terms of what they do. They then proceed to write their own stories, and start to take over each other’s roles.
Now for me Chromos is a book based on how life ought to be. A book that tells us that we are free of the chains of the past and of our own situations, and so we can take on whatever role we feel like having. (OK it doesn’t just say that, but it does say something like that along the way, and that’s the bit that appealed to me.)
Which is part of the point of literature. Literature allows anything to happen. Good innovative film-making, be it for TV or for the movies, can also do that, but literature has the benefit of allowing the reader to take the writing at his/her own speed.
So if we are giving up on reading, we are giving up on one of the prime ways of not only having a jolly good time, but also improving our own lives and making us think.
I myself have thought about writing a book called “Novel reading for beginners” but I suspect the sort of people I want to read the book wouldn’t read it because they don’t read books.
But still I would say, if you don’t have room for all your books, you don’t have to throw them away. You can store them, and then in five years time open up the box and surprise yourself. Or leave them for your children to discover, after you have passed on, exactly what sort of books you read. And if they are shocked it won’t matter because you will be looking down from on high, chuckling in a knowing sort of way.
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