If Christmas is a time for book-giving, then New Year is a time for reading, and in readiness for this particularly indulgent time of year I cleared my reading decks so I was free for a novel I’ve been waiting to read for some time.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a doorstop of a book at nearly eight hundred pages, and I wouldn’t expect any less as it took ten years to write. I loved the gothic darkness of The Secret History, so I settled down on Boxing Day to absorb myself in this new wonder, only to find myself frustrated, re-reading the same paragraphs and making slow and painful progress.
In trying to diagnose the problem (a compulsive writerly affliction, I suspect), I reminded myself that I have a tendency to consume books quickly, eager to get to the end so I can move on to the next book, as though all those unread novels out there might one day disappear like one of Scrooge’s ghosts. Reading slowly does not come naturally to me, but sometimes it is the book (or the writing) that forces me to change pace.
There are certain tried and trusted writers that I know I will whizz through. Writers like Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Roddy Doyle. Their writing is spare and precise, the language so pared back that I barely notice the words. This is what I consider to be full immersion, and surely this is storytelling at its best. No elaborate flourishes or tricksy distractions, just the characters, their situation, and what happens next.
But then there are those other writers. Margaret Atwood, Andrew Miller, Anita Shreve, and yes, Donna Tartt. Their characters are also strong and distinctive and from the start you want to know what happens to them. But the writing itself, now that is something else. The writing is so beautifully structured, so fluid and mellifluous, that I find myself carried along by the flow of the poetics without following the concrete events and visuals of the scene at hand.
Now, I pride myself in my ability to multi-task, but I’ve now realised that when it comes to reading I find it difficult to focus on the events of the story as well as fully appreciating this kind of lyrical writing. It’s debatable how much of this is a failing in the writing, or in myself, but either way a solution must be found.
So, here is the new approach. Instead of sitting down with The Goldfinch as I would a cold beer, consuming it quickly with a pizza and an episode of Friends, I’ll give it a little more reverence. The reading is more like a good quality bottle of claret, best enjoyed at a leisurely pace with a meal of many courses, not thinking for a moment how long it will take to drink but just enjoying one sip, one page, one chapter at a time. If I have to reread a paragraph, so be it. After all, if the characters are fascinating, the story absorbing and the writing so well crafted, what’s the rush?