In the novel IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER, Italo Calvino writes about a woman who is a pure reader. The act of being immersed in a story is the totality of the experience for the pure reader. According to her, “There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other side those that read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends…”. Later in IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT, Calvino introduces a writer who echoes the pure reader’s sentiment, saying “Since I have become a slave laborer of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me.” In Calvino veritas, indeed!
A writer reads to learn how to write. The psychological distance presupposed by the act of analysis is what makes it difficult for a writer to be a pure reader. To be a writer is to inherently dull the ability to read for reading’s sake.
This doesn’t mean that being a pure reader is impossible for writers, just that they’ll have to be reading an incredibly well-written work to get into that zone. Even then, once the afterglow of the read wears off, the writer will be picking through passages to try and understand how it’s possible that a story as seemingly bloated as Joyce’s THE DEAD can deliver such an emotional climax. Works of lesser quality do not even transport the writer; she will observe the story rather than be absorbed by it. The analytical chatterbox in her mind will note every infraction of grammar, characterization, and symbolism. More egregious than badly written books are books where the author makes the decision to include heavy-handed metafiction or some other self-conscious and purposefully precious element. Authors who do that break the sacred contract with the reader by eliminating any chance at the transcendental experience of becoming a pure reader. I’m with Calvino’s pure reader. All we want is to read a novel that “pile[s] stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you.”
We want to be absorbed, subsumed, enraptured.
It has already been two years since my last experience as a pure reader. The book? AFFINITY, by Sarah Waters. I was skeptical at first because I tend to find books written in diary format to be too contrived to enthrall me. However, Waters’s writing is amazing, and AFFINITY had enough supernatural, sexual, and mysterious elements to keep me coming back, despite my initial reluctance. I read the end on a lunch break; I was sitting in the kitchen at work, seething with emotions. Fury. Betrayal. Horror. Stupidity. Shock. Sadness. The sense of having been used. I was gasping for breath and in tears – in the company lunch room. I didn’t care. In fact, because Waters did her job very, very well, I became a pure reader. There is no lunch room or co-workers for the pure reader. There is only the story.
AFFINITY had serious wow-factor. I was awed, and not certain that there was any place left for novels to go, since perfection had already been achieved. Then the writer in me took charge. She decided that what the world needs are more books like AFFINITY. She started the analysis. She sent the pure reader packing.
What about you, when was the last time you experienced being a pure reader? What book did it for you? The holiday vacations are coming up, and I would love, Love, LOVE to have to have a stack of juicy reads!
- All quotes are from the 1981 Harcourt Brace & Company (Harvest Book imprint) edition of IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT A TRAVELER.
- I cannot take credit for my the phrase ‘In Calvino Veritas;’ that’s all over the web.