On the Difference between being a Reader and a Writer

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon the recommendation of the fine people at Argo Bookshop, I read Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which was in and of itself an excellent read, a meditation on the multiple meanings of reading, amongst other things. I was struck by a discussion between the protagonist, The Reader, and The Other Reader, who at least got a name, Ludmilla.  Both The Reader and The Other Reader have been continually frustrated in their attempts to read a book, any book, as they are continually met with incomplete manuscripts, so they get into their novel, only to have it end.  Up to this point, it has been due to publisher’s errors and problems in the actual process of printing and binding the books.

But The Reader has made a contact within the publishing firm, who has given him reign to peruse the completed manuscripts, and he excitedly tells The Other Reader when they meet in a café.  He then wants to rush back to the publisher to continue their investigation.  But she refuses.

Why don’t you want to come?

On principle.

What do you mean?

There’s a boundary line: on ne side are those who make books, on the other those who read them.  I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.  Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want.  This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers…I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for yourself.

It is clear that for The Other Reader, this is her own stance.  Of course, within a few chapters, she has violated her position.  But that’s irrelevant.  What is relevant is the point she raises, and the separation between authors and publishers and readers.  I had a thought similar to this last week when I was in Archambault looking for a book.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a history book, but I did see my friend Simon Jolivet‘s book on the shelf.  Now, this is not surprising, Simon wrote a book, based on his PhD dissertation, and it got published.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work in academia.  In fact, that’s the very process I am presently engaged in myself.  And certainly I have known many, many authors throughout my academic career (to say nothing of the fiction writers I know).  And certainly, books get treated differently in academia than in the general public: we have to publish them if we want to survive in our field, it’s part of the job (which is why I find it obnoxious when people presume that because it’s summer I’m doing nothing if I’m not teaching).

And yet, it’s one thing to see my professors’ books on the shelf in the bookstore, it’s another to see a friend’s, especially when we did our PhD’s together.  It’s not an incredibly profound statement, I realise, but there is still something rather exciting about seeing your friend’s book on a shelf in a busy downtown Montréal bookstore, to know that people have bought it and read it and will continue to do so, and to finally have it sink in that this will also happen for me, my book will be on these same shelves and people will buy it and read it, beyond the academy (I hope).

But does that change my relationship with reading, both fiction and non-fiction? I doubt it.  And, of course, The Other Reader eventually realised that herself when she started to get mixed up in book production and forgery rings.

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