Gravity is the force against which all firm things and intransigent principles are measured. Or so people say. I wish they were right; I know they are wrong. From my earliest days until I was seventeen, I lived in fear of the suspension of gravity. It could go in an instant. For no reason. Suddenly my sense of a relation of attachment to the ground or to any horizon would disappear. I’d crumple, curl up, and clutch my head. My self-perception would zoom out to include the available space — the room, the sky, the galaxy — in which I perceived myself to be an infinitely tiny and ungrounded mite. No considerations of propriety or self-preservation could stop me. In the street, in a classroom, in the car, in a bed: my sense of gravity would fail and I would fall. Vertigo they called it. I called it feeling dizzy.
I read my first dictionary when, as a kid, I was obliged to sit through several hours of Wednesday night prayer meeting every week.
I’ve found not blogging most disagreeable.
After my valedictory post a few weeks ago, good things did begin to happen, there’s no denying it. I wrote a bunch of stuff for publication, which is the thing I averred blogging was holding me back from doing. But then each day I would finish my work and look wistfully at my computer, the hours stretching before me, my fingers itching still to type.
What if — I asked myself — I maintain the iron provision that I can only blog after I’ve met my daily word count on “real” work? So that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll let this undead blog shamble about, as it wants to, scrupulously bearing in mind that it is a hobby.
Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
— Walter Benjamin, “13 Theses On Writing”
But of course, writing materials these days aren’t just papers, pens, and inks. I began aimlessly sketching what they are, for me, and ended up with this blog post.
Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.
All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. (Who is more invisible as a person than the figurehead of a dead empire?) Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.
The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.