Books About Books

What happens when reading and writing become literary subjects?


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In Rawi Hage’s latest novel Carnival (Norton), the narrator, a cab driver named Fly, relies on books to escape the prosaic disquiet — and the systemic injustice — he encounters on the streets. He reads to imagine what might be. Fly’s small apartment is stuffed with books, and not just dime store paperbacks, but a blossoming sway of world historic literature in various languages (Beirut born, Hage lives in bilingual Montreal).

The hero of his own story, Fly has a habit of righting wrongs, particularly abuses perpetrated by “infidels” on the weak and the powerless. He has no patience for hypocrisy and he condemns stupidity. One evening, a woman with “sweet legs and thick glasses” gets in his cab. A man urgently forces himself into the car beside her. Fly immediately senses the mistreatment coming. When the man angrily accuses the woman — Mary — of stifling him and caring only about her books, she begins to cry. Fly pulls over, kicks him out of the cab, and takes her home.

“When Mary entered my apartment,” Fly tells the reader,

she barely made it past the first shelf… Books fell like rain from above, books opened and closed like butterflies’ thighs. Books, she said. Look at all these books! And she laughed and walked among the garden of books, and then we took off our fig leaves and made love in the corner, where verses from heaven touched our bare, cracked asses that hopped and bounced like invading horses in holy lands.

Carnival swells with this kind of literary-sexual imagery. Home from a night of driving, Fly often lies down on the magic carpet he inherited from his circus performing father (the carpet itself a kind of literary allusion) and masturbates while imagining himself a Roman warrior battling the Barbarians. “As my father’s carpet reached the ceiling,” Fly notes, “I looked at the shores and I ejaculated in between the two colliding histories and felt fortunate to be alive.”

As a reader with perhaps equal appetite for words, I’m not however often drawn to books like this one that make reading or writing the subject. As a metaphor, I find it a bit stifling, even when it’s employed, as it is by Hage, as a symbol of expansiveness, imagination, and wonder. Of course, literature is filled with drunk writers, secret poets, and dirty-minded English professors, yet this sort of protagonist — like Malcolm Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin or Roberto Bolaño’s Amalfitano — stands up in our imagination not because he is book obsessed, but because of his yearning and his frailty, his desire and his failure.
Last month, in my review of Carnival in Cleaver magazine, I noted that I struggled with the book, which I found oddly pedantic. After the review was published, I sent the link to a friend, the historian Peter Siskind, who often serves as my personal literary adviser (and sometimes admonisher). He didn’t like it. “If you’re discouraging people from reading the book, what sort of intellectual impact does that make?” he wrote in an e-mail. He was right, certainly. Why discourage anyone from going on a literary journey?

Around that time, the publisher Paul Dry gave me a copy of The Fields of Light (Paul Dry Books), a 1951 “experiment in critical reading” by Harvard English professor Reuben Arthur Brower that he had just repackaged and republished. In order to experience literature in its fullest potency, Brower insisted perhaps not with masturbation in mind, a book or a poem ought to be read actively, tentatively, and slowly. Fields of Light would be the guide. Soon after the book was originally published, Brower turned it into a course, “Humanities 6: Interpretation of Literature,” which he taught until his death in 1975.

It’s a funny thing, I suppose, in this thoroughly deconstructed era, for a publisher to put out an authoritative guide to interpretation. Yet, Brower’s approach is centered on the necessarily subjective reader — this seems perfectly legitimate, even timely, for the Tumblr age. “I have always been thinking of literature as read by someone, as an active engagement between the reader and the printed page,” he writes in the book’s introduction. If you want to go on a literary journey, he seems to say, you don’t need a flying carpet. I can be your own personal adviser, whispering in your ear, encouraging you to slow down, to imagine more deeply.

A patient teacher, Brower goes on to introduce the reader to the intricacy of metaphor, dramatic construction, rhythm, and sound. “For when we encounter such rich combinations of design, something remarkable takes place, something very nearly inexpressible… The reader, at the center of the expanding web,” he notes, quoting Pope, “Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.”

One slowly acclimates to Brower’s lesson — and may never read the same again. As Brower moves through modes of interpretation — each step is akin to walking through another hidden door — he builds through Keats and Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen and E.M. Forster to what he posits as an “integrity of imagination” to be shared between the writer and the reader. But even here, Brower is careful and honest enough to admit the limitation of knowing. Should you successfully identify a work’s central metaphor or its integral design, you still may never quite know what was going through the writer’s mind.

This is the reader’s tension — and it never dissipates — the fear and worry that you’re reading something wrong (sometimes it’s the writer’s intention to fool you). Brower’s hope is to make that less likely. And anyway, isn’t a book or work of art open to interpretation? Well not exactly, according to another new novel that makes its central metaphor out of the acts of reading and writing, The Translator (Pegasus Books), by Nina Schuyler. A reader can in fact really get things wrong.

Here is Hanne Schubert, a carefully disciplined literary translator of Japanese, sitting at her San Francisco desk — one can imagine her bookshelves being equally comprehensive but much neater than Fly’s — finishing the translation of a new book by star novelist Kobayashi. The translation, meant to be Kobayashi’s introduction to the American audience, will make both of their careers. Schubert might even become a successful author in her own right.

Translators, naturally, aren’t quite like regular readers; at once, they must assert their own mastery of language and subjugate it. Using her own deep knowledge of Japanese and asserting her own judgment about the author Kobayashi’s main character Jiro, a classical musician who sends his dying, mentally unstable wife away, Schubert closes in on finishing the translation. She is convinced she understands Jiro intimately, even better than Kobayashi.

Then Kobayashi writes: Jiro wa isoide uchi e kaeri, toko ni tsuku. He hurries home and goes to bed. He is not fleeing or running away from anything. Jiro is not shirking responsibilities. He is weary from an eventful day. She translates it: He heads home and goes to bed.

But then she stumbles. He weeps uncontrollably.

Hanne looks up as if a stranger has just entered the room. Even in the darkest moments of caring for his wife, as her condition deteriorated, Jiro displayed the fine qualities of composure and restraint. It’s out of character and it isn’t at all believable. After a long string of dismal months, he finally and most deservedly had an extraordinary day. Why cry now?

She translates: He weeps uncontrollably, feeling a serenity he didn’t know he was missing.

Brower would certainly identify a mistranslation as the central metaphor of this book, and it comes into full vision when she falls in San Francisco’s city hall and is, in effect, struck dumb. When she comes to, Schubert can only speak in Japanese. A strident woman, she tries to make the best of her circumstance by traveling to Japan. There, she can communicate, attend a conference, and she believes, meet — and impress — Kobayashi.

But Kobayashi is of course furious. He thinks Schubert’s translation is meant to mock him. He confronts her after she gives a pretentious talk on the search for a “common language” of literature. “You ruined my main character,” he says. “Turned him into an asshole.”

The confrontation adds to her uneasiness and fatigue. Now, she is vulnerable; she yearns hopelessly, infected by disquiet. Eventually, that vulnerability forces Schubert, the professional reader, to listen more carefully and to observe honestly, despite the pain. It isn’t easy, but then, understanding others or yourself — or the intentions of a writer — never is. When she finally returns to San Francisco, Schubert has discovered her own writerly voice.

Novelist, memoirist, and essayist Beth Kephart would certainly agree — the best writing comes from honesty, openness, compassion. “Forced knowing is false knowing,” she writes in Handling the Truth (Gotham Books), due out August 6, as if speaking directly to Hanne Schubert. But, Kephart observes, “words rendered true spook and spur us.”

Like The Fields of Light, this book is a lyrical, personal guide — not to reading per se, but to actively interpreting memoir and confidently writing it yourself. Unlike The Fields of Light, which would become the backbone to Brower’s Harvard course, Handling the Truth comes out of Kephart’s popular memoir writing class at Penn. She even pulls on student work.

Kephart, whose memoir A Slant of the Sun: One Child’s Courage was nominated for the National Book Award, is assertive and defiant — and downright funny — about the literary value of memoir, a genre that some critics see as spent, imaginatively thin, and sentimental. So confident and playful, so taken is she with words, so willful is she about the transformative power of literature that at times in Handling the Truth she begins to sound like Rawi Hage’s Fly. “Call me sentimental; others have,” she writes. “Remind me that the world is dark and ugly, that people are cruel, that injustice reigns, that children suffer, that the wrong people win, the wrong people triumph. I know. I have been there. I have seen. I have lost to the infidels once or twice myself.”

Memoir, like all great literature, Kephart asserts, is the transformation of consciousness into art. “An alive sky is a whole soul,” she tells us, turning the prosaic landscape into pregnant imagery, the act of writing into breathing. “You must,” she concludes, “let it filter through you.” • 24 July 2013 


Nathaniel Popkin's latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard. He is also the author of Song of the City, and The Possible City, and is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior writer and editor of the documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." Most of his work can be found at