I’ve tried to explain the reason why I turn away so many book recommendations from friendly and well-meaning friends, including relatives, but I always sound snobbish when I say, “Oh, I don’t read novels.” Like novel-reading was lying on the sofa with a box of chocolates, neglecting the housework. (Well, I confess to neglecting the housework.) And I DO read novels, but not the way they do. I just finished “The Girl Who Played with Fire” on my iPod and now I’m listening to the audible version of “The Outlander.” Only because they were gifts.
Anyway, these days EVERYTHING is called a novel, esp. if it’s autobiographical but not certifiable fact. If it were certifiable it would be represented as a memoir, which some people confuse with journalism or possibly grand jury testimony. So I was pleased when Shatzkin (a guy who writes about what digitization has done to the book biz -- NOT the actual writing itself) created a phrase that just about captured what I’m talking about: “immersive” reading. Reading to plunge into another world. Some people call it “genre,” but that also has a kind of lowbrow vibe to it.
People who read immersively -- whether chic lit, YA, mystery, horror, sci-fi or Western -- say these kinds of things:
1. I was just grabbed by the throat and couldn’t put the book down and stayed up all night reading.
2. I had no idea that this world existed at all. It was a revelation.
3. This is my favorite author and I always read whatever he/she writes. I feel I have a personal relationship.
4. This was so much like MY life!
5. The writing was so beautiful and elegant, like lyric poetry; so intense.
6. The violence was extreme and absolutely authentic.
7. Today’s prize comment was a reviewer who claimed the writing in a novel was “both lapidary and visceral” which left me with the vision of a lap full of guts and jewelry.
Of course, right there you have my problem: I wasn’t immersed. I’m always -- somewhere in my mind -- monitoring the proceedings. My writing is as much like that as my reading is. Aware, if not wary. Watching myself watch. Haven’t really been immersed in reading for a long time.
In the last years while my mother was dying, she’d ask me to get books for her. She wanted something to get lost in, to make her forget she was dying. She wasn’t in pain -- it was a blood cancer that simply slowed her and slowed her until she stopped. But it didn’t slow her mind, which raced ahead, trying to tell us what to watch out for, trying to figure out what to do with my brain-damaged brother who seemed all right until you realized he wasn’t tracking properly. He liked to read the encyclopedia, acquiring facts the way my father used to. Both of them thought that put them in control, knowing things.
I never found the right books for my mother. The books I read made her angry. She didn’t like me knowing theology. She thought it was challenging authority and she respected authority. I didn’t. Author - ity. I thought I’d just be one. She wanted gossip and to be stylish. So I got her novels, but she was impatient. She thought they were trivial and predictable. She was right. I asked the librarian for help, but she didn’t do any better than I did. We couldn’t find the right recipe for immersing her.
In the Valier library one day a very thin woman was checking out a pile of books, maybe some of those Christian romances women around here read. I joked about how much she read and she was angry. “There’s nothing else to do but housework,” she said. Someone told me later that she was dying. Check your assumptions, Scriver. Be aware. Be wary. Around here, immersing oneself in books is not legitimate unless you can’t do work, preferably for pay. I could only be grateful that the library had the right kind of books for that woman.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy genre writing. This beetle-green iPod with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Outlander” came closer to immersing me because of the voice of the reader. I bought a paperback version of “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and read it just about straight through in one sitting and enjoyed it but guessed the plot and regretted the cliches and couldn’t keep all the characters straight. So I was up to make more coffee (Larsson’s books constantly talk about coffee and people always go to the door wrapped in a sheet.) and up to feed the cat and up to see if the wash was dry yet. Beached, not immersed.
Maybe I just need more high brow literary books, more cerebral novels. But I already know a better way to get immersed: write. An idea . . . I sit down . . . an hour later I hear the news come on and that breaks the spell, which is why I run NPR all day or I wouldn’t stop until it was dark. Even more than my own writing, when writing by my co-writer Tim appears on the screen, I jump into it and am quickly absorbed. We do not edit each other’s writing. We’re after ideas.
He says if he can’t write poetry, he will go mad. He says, “it is not necessary for poetry to have happened/ either grew or did not grow/ fingerprints upon the iris of the eyes/ poetry is naked in the wrong quick dead/ absolute power come in on tides/” It sounds as though he means emotion; maybe to him ideas and emotions are the same. Images and words and music -- he has a multi-media mind. He didn’t go to the University of Chicago Divinity School where the first thing they ask when they pick up your writing is “now, what’s your method?” His method is diving in, going overboard. He must avoid shallow water for fear he might break his neck.
They say it’s a matter of waves: an engaged brain makes a certain kind of waves, almost a music, capable of synchronizing with another engaged brain, coming in on the tide, a kind of music. Immersion without publishing.