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The Unread Alphabet: Returning to my first love

*Isaac Salazar’s beautiful books of art.

One of the best things about 2011 for me has been rediscovering my love of fiction. You see, I read omnivorously and vociferously as a child, often pestering loved ones by asking for more or re-telling them the stories that I had just read. Fiction has always been a safe place: it’s where I reach that state of flow in which I loose track of the room around me, the life I lead thins to a quickening heartbeat and I barely see the words on the page as I look through them to a whole new world. The story that I am coming to inhabit ends up inhabiting me. Good stories have always had that dual function of being at once exotic and mundane; they are gifts to be savoured, luxurious adventures and escape to relive and yet I would spend a large part of every single day in this act of reading.

It would be false to say that I grew out of reading. I continued reading, but largely serious academic books that consumed my brain, but very little of my heart. Spending seven years in academic study meant that fiction reading returned to being a luxury, something that happened on holiday, and so I’d read perhaps three or four fiction books a year, sticking to styles and authors I knew I’d enjoy. (Aside from the time I decided to read all seven of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series in a month because I really, really didn’t want to do an essay on the Reformations. Trust me, I’d make the same decision again today.) What frustrated me is that there was, and is, probably more pertinence to my chosen path of theological study and practice in the works of good fiction than in some of the academic non-fiction I have read. Especially as a strong strand of theology in my undergrad years focused on narrative theology and yet, as a friend pointed out, we walked the inevitable academic path of feeling guilty about reading anything other than very serious German philosophy or that notable work that underpins our current thesis.  So, on leaving academia at the start of this year I decided it was about time I stopped feeling guilty about reading fictions and to return to my first love.

I will admit, returning to the heady heights of good fiction was a little tricky at the start, mostly because I felt so overwhelmed that I’d end up getting half way through a book and decide that I wanted to read something else.  I couldn’t figure out whether to read more of the styles I loved or to branch out into new things. I’d spend so much time thinking about what to read that I wouldn’t give myself wholeheartedly to the act of reading. To try and compensate for this, I came up with a system.

The system was as follows: unless I had an absolute siren song from a book, I would stick to an alphabetical list of authors that I’d never read before. That way, I knew I wouldn’t just be sticking to the comfortable sheets of those authors that I knew enchanted me, and that I’d be challenging myself to try new genres and styles that I had decided ‘weren’t my taste’ when I was only 17.

For the most part, it has been a successful endeavour, although I’m only up to ‘P’ due to the massive number of ‘siren song’ books that popped up at the end of this year. Over the next few weeks I’ll take you up to speed with where I’ve got so far on the alphabet, as well as picking out a couple of other favourite books, although I feel that the reviews of the books themselves has perhaps been the least important part of the ‘never read alphabet’. No, the most important thing is that I’ve remembered how to read again. I’ve remembered how to be so absorbed by a book that a sun can rise and set without you noticing. I’ve remembered how to love a book so hard that you will weep desperately in front of perfect strangers on a train because of words written by a man you’ve never met. I’ve remembered how to feel perfectly myself whilst identifying completely with a lost young boy, a disillusioned world war two pilot or a Serbian teenager. I’ve remembered what years of schooling kicked out of me – reading is as much about experiencing as it is about understanding.

The Unread Alphabet: Auster, Boyd and Chekhov

I read these three before I’d really started on the plan. Or rather, I read these three and then realised I was reading in alphabetical order, which sparked off the mad plan.

Paul Auster – In the Country of Last Things

I didn’t really enjoy this, it was far too allegorical for me and I think I missed out on a lot of the references that he was trying to make. There are some desperately chilling and gloomy moments in the book, but it was meant to be a story about a women essentially taking a walk through the twentieth century, so I guess the gloom was justifiable.  There’s a lot of really smart stuff here, particularly the disappearance of technology or the disturbing detailing of the suicide groups like the runners who train to literally run themselves to death. Sadly, I never really felt anything toward the book and ended up being quite glad to get it finished.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart

I really enjoyed reading this. I grew very attached to the main character, Logan, despite all of his faults and failings and the moments you wanted to turn away from the things he was doing. As the life of the character spans every decade of the 20th century, it was an interesting contrast to Auster’s take on the same century. I did feel like I had been taken on a journey through all of the different movements and trends and events of those years, in particular the artists and writers that Logan comes into contact with and is influenced by. More than anything I felt a deep sadness at how Boyd portrayed both through Logan’s own life and the depictions of world events  how the promise of the 20th century was squandered and wasted. It also made me want to keep a journal, because he writes such incredible things about himself and his dreams and opportunities, and yet he seems to forget about them as he grows up.   Here’s one of my favourite (long) quotes from the book that highlights Boyd’s theme of the multiple selves, as well as the power of the journal:

‘We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being. Think of our progress through time as one of those handy images that illustrate the Ascent of Man. You know the type: diagrams that begin with the shaggy ape and his ground-grazing knuckles, moving on through slowly straightening and depilating hominids, until we reach the clean-shaven Caucasian nudist proudly clutching the haft of his stone axe or spear. All the intervening orders assume a form of inevitable progression towards this brawny ideal. But our human lives aren’t like that, and a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganized reality. The various stages of development are there, but they are jumbled up, counterposed and repeated randomly. The selves jostle for prominence in these pages: the mono-browed Neanderthal shoulders aside axe-wielding Homo sapiens; the neurasthenic intellectual trips up the bedaubed aborigine. It doesn’t make sense; the logical, perceived progression never takes place. The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people–all these different people are me.’

Anton Chekhov – Story of a Nobody

Although I’m sure I didn’t get everything that being alluded to in this short work, I did enjoy getting into the feel of the book. The main character begins the book with a passion and an anger for completing an act against the ruling classes, yet as the book progresses he becomes disillusioned with his struggle and with life, and cannot bring himself in the end to commit the act he has waited to.  There’s a sense of complexity as to why he can’t – the negatives about becoming like the master he has so hated but also the positives of seeing humanity in people he has treated only as the enemy. There’s some great moments of wit in the book, but it also lacks a real sense of pace.

4 comments on “The Unread Alphabet: Returning to my first love

  1. c=Chabon!

  2. That’ll be coming in later…if I can bear to write about it without having to read it all again right now please!

  3. I love the idea of this. I think I might alphabetize my books and then just art at the beginning. I read one Auster book I enjoyed entitled Timbuktu. If you want to give him another change I would recommend it.

    • Thanks! I did find it really helpful, although it’s good to also be able to pick things up that aren’t in sequence! Not sure how I feel about Auster again, maybe in a few years I’ll be up for it!

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