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Why We Read, w/ Mary Gaitskill

March 19, 2010

Last night I went to see a panel at The Center For Fiction about “Why We Read” which featured Mary Gaitskill (she wrote various books, short story collections, has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, yaddayadda). I was interested partly because I’ve just finished one of her collections, Bad Behavior (stay tune, because I’m writing a review of that soon) and partly because I have no flipping idea about why we read.

And really, neither did she.

The panel ended up talking about why literature isn’t dead, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of literature with that of film and other mediums. Namely Gaitskill said something that I think we’ve all said/thought at one time or another: literature allows the reader the freedom of their own imagination; if the author says something is beautiful, then each reader can imagine what is most beautiful to them, and if, for example, Dickens wants you to imagine a megalosaurus waddling through the city streets of London because it’s a great descriptive device, then you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief (yes, really, a megalosaurus. Check out the first page of Bleak House and apparently it’s right there: “and it would not be wonderful [as in surprising] to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”)

The internet, of course, was discussed, and Gaitskill lamented that people no longer take time to just relax and read anymore, instead they expect things to show up in a rapid fire of link after link. And I have to say I agree with her, and certainly I’ve argued that we need to separate ourselves from the internet now and again, to slow down and find that quiet place. She admitted that being over 50, she was surprised by how much the internet changed the way she read, and worried how this might affect reading in the future.

I asked a question during Q&A time: In a world where we’re being constantly inundated with a flow of information, where there are constantly literary publications, classics, debut novels, etc, that we’re expected to read, how does one find time for the peace and quiet, how does one choose which book to simply sit down and read with?

I didn’t really like the answer I received, but here it was, essentially: Gaitskill said she doesn’t feel pressured to read anything, and certainly doesn’t feel obligated to read debut novels, adding that she hasn’t read all the classics like Anna Karenina, and only just recently read Conrad. She reads, she said, what she chooses.

Oh what luxury, to read whatever you want! To know that when you chose the book you chose, you weren’t forsaking the precious time you might have devoted to another book!

I make it my prerogative (or I try to make it my prerogative) to read debut novelists because I might be one in the near future. I try to read the classics, to read what’s been recently awarded for X award because there are so many great books. I like to think my fault is not that I feel pressured or forced to read, but rather that I want to read but can’t decide which delicious venture to begin next. And can I add, besides, that I think everyone should support debut novelists? They’re the future, baby.

Why do you read? How do you combat the crazy forces trying to stuff your brain with a million articles and a million books? Where is that quiet place of reading? Should you read more debut novels?

That’s all she wrote, folks.

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