Friday, November 16, 2007

Robertson Davies on the Art of Reading

I'm having some trouble with my internet connection at home, so I have not been able to blog as freely this week. My discomfort with this lack of net connection may be a sign of a cyber-addiction. Right now I'm using my dad's laptop to surf -- and I feel like I'm ten years old, surfing the net under parental supervision.

I am trying to finish packing for my Hanoi trip. The flight will be this Sunday (18th November). Not sure about the availability of internet connection over there, so I may be offline for a while.

I had a replacement day-off this Wednesday. I had planned to spend the whole day working on NaNo, but it was such a nice day, so I went out to a cafe instead -- one that overlooked the sea. The view was not as nice as it should be because of the construction that mars the horizon. Still, I had a full day of restful leisure. I wrote a little, but I don't think I can use what I wrote; I drank a lot of coffee, watched Factory Girl -- but most of all, I read a book. Not just any book -- but an out-of-print Robertson Davies that I have been looking for the past year.

I recently logged on to Abebooks and ordered a secondhand copy of Robertson Davies's A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading. The postage costed more than the book (a pencil scrawl indicates the book was priced at 50 cents) The question of course, was it worth it?

Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes.

The book was first published in 1960 and reprinted with a preface in 1971. This revised edition in my possession right now was reprinted in 1990. In a nutshell -- this is a very old book.

There are some details in the book that feels out-dated, like Davies describing the process of listening on a gramophone. Yet, in his preface he made this bold claim: "This is, after all, a book about reading, and the kind of reader I am addressing does not care primarily about being in fashion." And yes, his message is still highly relevant.

Davies calls these readers the "Clerisy". So, who be these clerisy?

The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

The Clerisy is Us. And our name is Legion.

This is Robertson Davies's call to the clerisy to reclaim the art of reading for readers, and not to allow the "experts" to determine taste and opinions. He pointed out that too many of us do not think of ourselves as artists, and often we have little faith in our interpretative skills. So we defer to the critics, who are paid for knowing something and giving public expression to his/her opinions, while we are stand as mere laymen in the world of books and reading.

Davies was particularly annoyed by the term "layman" -- which he found somewhat derogatory, as it "meant simply one who worshipped, as opposed to a priest, who had knowledge of the sacred mysteries." It is arrogance for the experts to assume that the amateur is by default not as well-informed or as sensitive as they are, and Davies reminds these experts of the need for humility which art imposes, so as to "avoid the harlotry of a cheap professionalism."

As I was reading the book, I can't help but think how pertinent this book is to the argument between the professional book critics and the litbloggers. How often the critics have accused litbloggers of diluting the standard of book criticism -- blah blah blah blah. (Oh god, I am mature) Imagine this: Davies wrote this book more than 40 years ago, and we are still fighting the same battles on new grounds.

But wait, Davies doesn't let us off that easily. We the readers have a duty to reading -- at least, we owe it to ourselves to work at being better readers -- "if they do not mean to make the most of their faculty of appreciation, why are they reading? To kill time? But it is not time they are killing; it is themselves.

Reading is a personal interpretative art -- like all art form, it takes effort and it takes time. For we may read qualitatively, but we do not always read qualitatively. One of the reasons we read with this poverty of mind is the "end-gaining" attitude to our books. Many of us dash through a book -- because we want to "have done" with the book so that we can move on to the next one. I admit this is something I am guilty of -- I also enjoy making reading lists, just so that I can tick off against the list what I have "done".

How many times have I felt that I need to re-read a book, because I seem to have missed something the first time? I don't think of myself as a good reader. Often, I think I do not allow the book a fair chance to make its effect on me. It's like I consume books, perhaps just so that I can claim to have read Moby Dick or some other great literature.

I am only about 20 pages into the book, so what I can share right now is limited by the brevity of my own reading. Davies continues to talk about how a reader could work towards better appreciation and better reading. One of his more interesting point is to develop "the inward ear" -- for reading is as much about a Voice. I think about what he said, and I agree -- my favourite authors are writers whose prose are so powerfully lyrical that I find my breath slowing down to match the rhythm of their sentences. It is when I slow down to take note of the language, the poetry, that they start to make their emotional effect on me.

But that is a post for a later date, I think.


Melanie said...

Wonderful post! If you can find this much to discuss within the first 20 pages, I look forward to hearing more as you read the rest.

stefanie said...

Wow, this sounds like a fantastic book! You've barely gotten into it and it has so much good stuff already? I can hardly wait to hear more. I will definitely have to look for this at the secondhand shops.

Nymeth said...

What did you think of Factory Girl? I want to watch it sometime.

That sounds like an absolutely fascinating book.

Dark Orpheus said...

Melanie Oh yes - Robertson Davies is just wonderful. I didn't want to start on any new book - but the moment I started reading it, especially about the clerisy, I had to continue reading.

Stefanie Please, please, please - do try to pick up a copy of this book. Maybe hard to find, but it's so engaging.

Nymeth "Factory Girl" had obvious weaknesses - but Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce did great jobs on their roles.

jenclair said...

Great review, Orpheus. I already want to read the book and thoroughly enjoyed what you had to say about only the first 20 pages! The more things change...well, you know that old saying. I am always amazed at the differences between the books that some (not all) literary critics recommend and the books that actually remain in the public consciousness and stay in print for years.

I googled Davies and found that he had written a book called Fifth Business in which the characters "roughly correspond to Jungian archetypes." Now that interests me, too. He also wrote one titled The Lyre of Orpheus! How's that for coincidence?

Dark Orpheus said...

Jenclair Oh yeah! I had the chance to read Lyre of Orpheus earlier this year - it was the third book in the Cornish Trilogy - and it was very good. I love the epigram he quoted: "The lyre of Orpheus opens the doors of the Underworld to feelings." Beautiful, isn't it?

Davies had a lifelong interest in Jungian symbolism and it informed his writing. Fifth Business is Book 1 of The Deptford Trilogy, and it had a particular fool-saint character that deeply intrigued me. I read her character as the representation of The Fool of the Tarot.

Book 2 of The Deptford Trilogy: The Manticore, delves deeper into Jungian analysis, but personally I felt it wasn't as rich a story as the other 2 books.

Now, World of Wonders - the third book of The Deptford Trilogy - it has some truly fascinating characters that seem lifted from Jungian archetypes: the Magician, who learnt his art from the circus - and his friend Liselotte - the ugly, but brilliant stunned giantess with the rich, exquiste voice.

Oh. Better stop before this becomes a post by itself. But I'm sure you get the idea I Heart Robertson Davies.