Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Art of Reading

I recently read Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, for my book club. It had been on my list for more than a year, so I was looking forward to getting beyond the opening pages, which I'd read online when deciding whether or not to add it to my list. It was way beyond the story I had anticipated, taking a very dark turn and staying there throughout most of the novel. Dark in the vein of Phantom of the Opera, The Book Thief and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. But the story was masterfully written, and the characters wore their flesh all too convincingly.

The setting is Barcelona, Spain, 1945. The protaganist is Daniel Sempere, an 11-year-old boy who is truly an old soul. The opening takes place at The Cemetery of Forgotten Books -- and that's where Zafon captured me, right in the first sentence, at that sadly intriguing place. Daniel's father takes him there and tells him he can select one book, and that once selected, Daniel is responsible for that book, "making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." He tells Daniel, "Every book ... has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands ... its soul strengthens."

The novel parallels two worlds: the world of Daniel Sempere, and that of Julian Carax, the author of the book Daniel selected from The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, titled The Shadow of the Wind. It's believed to be the last of Carax's books in existence, for someone has gone to deadly extremes to rid the world of his novels. Immediately Daniel is thrust into the mystery surrounding Julian Carax's life, both personal and professional, a mystery frought with intrigue, danger and murder. The tension doesn't let up from page one.

But there were two lines near the end of the book that I had to stop and contemplate for a while. On page 444, one of the characters says, "Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise."  And on page 484, "Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind ..."

Those quotes are bookends that examine a novel from the author's perspective on one hand, and from the reader's perspective on the other. "... a letter the author writes himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise." I agree with that line to a point. I do believe a book is written as much for the author as it is for the reader. I'm not so sure that it's to discover things the author would otherwise be unable to discover. Rather I believe, from my own experience at least, that it helps her untangle complex issues she might not have the energy or courage to examine any other way. "...the art of reading is ... an intimate ritual ... a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us ..." That line I do agree with whole-heartedly. I think that's why books are as intensely personal as a painting or a song. What pierces me to the marrow may mean nothing at all to you. And I'm pierced because I relate to whatever the issue may be. I think that's why, as Megan said in a comment to Patti's post last Friday, "We appreciate, and probably look for or expect, different things from novels, which is why there are books that some of us love and others are disappointed in." If you're like me you begin a novel with anticipation that you and the novel are going to have a soul connection on one level or another. Yes, there are novels we select for a light read, that we don't look to for any special meaning. But those books that do beckon us for a deeper experience can be hugely impacting if they connect with us, or hugely disappointing if they fail to do so.

What is your perspective on those quotes. What book have you most recently connected with on a deep level?


Latayne C Scott said...

What a fascinating premise for a book! Kind of the opposite of Fahrenheit 451!

And provocative analysis, Sharon, as you always give us.

Dina Sleiman said...

The title caught my attention today because I had just posted in my facebook status that I've noticed recently that I often start books and don't finish them. I never used to do that. I know part of the reason is that I have so many free and cheap kindle books in my library waiting to be read, and I don't want to waste my time on books I don't enjoy.

But when I went back and compared the books I finished to the books I didn't finish, both lists were pretty eclectic. Both included funny books, serious books, romance, litery fiction, fantasy, and even young adult.

So it must be that thing you mentioned about whether or not the book speaks to me personally. Whether or not I connected.

And I will confess to you ladies that the book I happened to read most recently that I connected with was Twilight - which does not speak well of me, I think, LOL. It was something about the tragic love between Bella and Edward. The knowing this will hurt you but not being able to resist it anyway. An AWFUL message for teen girls, but so true and so human at the same time.

Dina Sleiman said...

I do know how to spell literary :/

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I read "The Tale of Despereaux" to my kids a month ago. It connected so very much to my heart. Just the need to belong and forgive and act with moved me. My kids are learning that nothing makes me cry like a good book (or when they get hurt). Oh. That book just got right to me.

Nicole said...

Good post, Sharon. I'd have to answer January Justice by Athol Dickson. The male protagonist is deep in grief, but he's also a man's man who, because of his loss, is struggling with his life - and desire to live - options.

I'm a die-hard romantic who rarely reads CBA romance because they so often fail to capture the depth of emotion, UST, and reality of romance. I write them instead which plays to your first quote.

I relate to male protagonists if they demonstrate strong men with vulnerable tendencies. I'm drawn to them. They exemplify the human conflict of the fallen man. In January Justice Malcom Cutter is all man with great pain, nearly disabled in grief, who ultimately stands up to it and begins to overcome. It's a great read.

Megan Sayer said...

Wow Sharon!! I love this post. It's so rich and full I need to eat it in small doses, and keep coming back to it. I'll be coming back a while before I'm done.
(Oh, and I just bought "The Shadow of the Wind" for Kindle too. It sounds very profound.)
I agree with your take on these quotes, very much. But, unfortunately, I've been so profoundly impacted by what you've written here I've got nothing intelligent to add at all. Or, at least, nothing I want to say on the Internet :)
Keep it up. you're amazing!!

Jennifer Major said...

"Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise".I LOVE that quote!! So many layers in that. Wow.

Two books I've read recently-ish were Bonnie's Talking to the Dead and Laura Frantz's Courting Morrow Little. Both of them resonated on a "I don't know me, do you? Can you help me?" level.

Maybe that's why I write from a character's very lowest moment on up, because hope is all the rope a person needs to climb out of the pit.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Latayne, thank you.

Dina, I know exactly what you're saying. I almost never give up on a book, but time is so valuable, that reading a book that doesn't grab me seems a foolish waste of time.

Susie, I'll have to check into The Tale of Despereaux.

Nicole, thank you. And thanks for the heads up on Athol's new book. I love his writing. Thought I was current, but yay! a new one to read. I like male protags too, but only if they're done well. I don't want them too much in touch with their feminine side. I want them real :)

Megan, thanks, darlin.' Hope you enjoy Shadow of the Wind.

Jennifer, great taste! and I love your last line.

Cherry Odelberg said...

For me, a novel is a self-help book the author writes herself. In re-reading and editing, I am often reminded of truths and applications I so soon forget.

As for reading being, "an intimate ritual," YES! It is one thing to read a textbook or a set of instructions in public and quite another to read, "The Language of Flowers," in a place where you will be interrupted by the public or friends and strangers might see you cry.