Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Naive and Sentimental Reader

Like most writers I read a lot and, like most people, I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. Much of my reading is research—I've recently read a number of books on different aspects of the Civil War, all as research for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk. But finding time to read for the sheer pleasure of reading often eludes me. I invariably have several books going at the same time—an audio book to listen to while cooking, sewing and knitting; a DTB book for the car and/or the back porch; Kindle books—fiction and non-fiction—in bed at night. I get a little covetous about my reading time.

Orhan Pamuk
Last night I was reading in bed—the story was a contemporary thriller by a writer whose work I have read before. It was reasonably interesting—a murder was committed and a group of people were conspiring to keep it covered up; a burned-out detective, still lusting after the wife who left him because she wasn't getting enough attention, etc. etc. The writing was good, the characters were semi-interesting. I don't want to blame the book because I think it was just me. I wasn't getting anything out of it and I couldn't figure out why. Finally, I decided to try something else and I switched over to Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Read And Write Novels.

First, let me say, though I have not read all of Pamuk's work, I have loved everything I've read. Like Salman Rushdie and Isabelle Allende, he has the ability to paint landscapes that draw you in and stay in one's memory so visceraly it is almost possible to believe you have once visited there. This book is a collection of essays about the experience of reading and I have been savoring the essays one at a time—giving myself time to think about them between each. As I was reading I was, again, struck by the distinction Pamuk makes between the “naive” novelists who are unaware of the novel's artificiality, and the “sentimental” novelist who build the story around self-reflection and a relationship to the story. And, as naturally follows, the reader of naive work and the reader of sentimental work will experience the work accordingly.

I had this idea that maybe that was the problem with the thriller I was trying to read. On the surface there was nothing wrong with it except that I just didn't feel any sense of engagement. It was just a well-written story of some artificial characters in an artificial setting doing artificial things. It was all about what happens next. There was nothing wrong with it—it just wasn't holding my interest.

Luay Hamza Abbas
Another book among those that I am juggling is Luay Hamza Abbas's Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories. I picked it up after reading an article about someone who decided to read a book by an author from every country on the planet. Also, it only cost a dollar. The stories are short—some only a few paragraphs. In many the main character does not have a name. Like Pamuk's essays, it would be a mistake to read these all at once because each story is so filled with imagery and so evocative that they must be digested slowly. Because Iraq is a country that has been torn apart by violence both from within and without, violence is often the theme, but in such a subtly beautiful way. There are no politics in these stories. No judgements or ideologies. They are just stories about people who have to live in this place and go about their lives and do the best they can in the face of horrors.

In one story a person just wants to go to work and do his job, another just wants to tend his garden, another, another wants to make tea for her family, or roast fava beans. They are going about their days like any average person anywhere in the world goes about a day. But then a shot rings out and someone drops dead. Men drag someone into the street and an execution takes place. They are just stories—stories from a place where if you happen to glance into a ditch as you walk home from market, you just might see a pair of white-coated, lifeless eyes staring at the heavens. The reflection they produce is unavoidable.

Sometimes a naive story is just what we need to slip out of the world and let our minds take a break. But other times we need that sentiment—we crave it, because in it we learn more about ourselves and the world in which we dream.

Thanks for reading.

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