There are writers you read and there are writers you re-read. What is behind a return by a reader? Often it might be wisdom. Sometimes a reader may wish to regain a moment’s feeling or experience or insight, a return to a lost self. A re-visit. In her introduction to her new book Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader, Vivian Gornick writes that she began re-reading when she entered college, “because from then on it was to the books that had become my intimates that I would turn and turn again, not only for the transporting pleasure of the story itself but also to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.” Books it’s true make great companions and take up much less space in the bed than a human and don’t devour your fridge.
There’s a continuity between this approach to reading and Gornick’s writing process, which she has similarly described as the shaping of a piece of experience. The question is where’s the experience and who is doing the shaping?
Conveniently, Vivian Gornick is one of the writers I re-read. Conveniently, Vivian Gornick has written a book about re-reading books she loves. Here I am reading Gornick re-reading, while she’s concurrently directing me to ten other books I have never read or had intended to read and am now sprinting eager to do so. This is the immediate experience of reading Unfinished Business: An athletic lexicism as one rushes to confirm, nodding one’s head and reading along, that one’s own response is shared with hers. This is an unusual reading experience, because it commences anew, as you turn toward and away from the book. And because each chapter or essay addresses a different writer, you could comfortably read this book in tandem with twelve others.
She sets off with Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, which she has read three times. She charts her earlier readings and recognizes that “my memory of the overriding theme—sexual passion as the central experience of a life—was wrong.” It appears to her now that the novel’s central struggle is “the illusion of sexual love as liberation,” and her first reckonings on the novel were “insufficiently informed.” She “saw clearly that it was I, as a reader, who had had to journey toward the richest meaning of the book.”
From Lawrence, she turns to Collette’s novels The Vagabond and The Shackle and discovers that the self-recognition and erotic obsession that charged her first reading of them as a young woman now prove more “limited and narrow.” Unlike Lawrence, though, Colette does not now offer her a fresh revelation to compensate for her lost admiration. Onwards to Marguerite Duras and up she pulls to Elizabeth Bowen, where she diverts to Bowen’s personal life, latching onto a parallel element in Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart, and returning to situate the strand absolutely in Gornick’s own experience. By now Bowen’s fictional insight begins to feel like a major revelation of the male human psyche and what to avoid therein that would stand anyone in good stead as they swipe right or invite someone to go camping or sleep over beside that volume on the duvet.
It both surprised and pained me to admit the effectiveness of this manoeuver. Why should Bowen’s private life have anything to do with it? But herein lies one of the wonders of Gornick’s approach. Her participatory narration surrounds the rendering of her re-reading, and her new realizations about these novels are worked through the memoir of her existence. This isn’t an easy thing to manage, since the memoir part must support or expand and elevate the readings, without becoming self-absorbed, scrobbled, and solipsistic. How Gornick achieves this relates to her unique style. She has a clarity that excavates as it enlightens. She is never afraid to reconsider, even within a few paragraphs. She expects to challenge herself. Fundamentally she has a very interesting mind, because it is always on the move.
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The readings collectively add up to more than just thoughts about books: personal memoir and narrative allow oxygen and factual talk in, where fiction would place a grate and say enough. I don’t know if Gornick’s supply of supporting life experience is what gives Unfinished Business conviction or whether it’s simply that strong writing becomes a fine form of indisputable. Because with Gornick, you are always reading for style. She dissects sentences and illuminates syntax (a blessed relief as so much writing about fiction now is all about plot and characters and is deaf to the uses of language) even as she delves into the emotional relationship we have with our reading. The result is a rare gust of sympathy for the passionate reader: an encounter with a person for whom books are as live a presence as they are for oneself. In Unfinished Business Gornick elevates this way of life to a near manifesto:
The companionateness of those books! Of all books. Nothing can match it. It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work—that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words—it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers.
A significant influence on her writing, Natalia Ginzburg, manages to provide “solace as well as revelation” for the duration of Gornick’s life. She cites Ginzburg’s essay “My Vocation” as the defining text of her late twenties, giving her the blueprint of how to become a writer. Or the particular writer that Gornick needed to be. Sometimes the intervention of another writer, through reading, gives a writer the means to become who they are, endorses them as they fail to produce work like everyone else and helps them fail to give up. It’s a critical moment in a writer’s development to access this courage, since literary courage is sometimes rewarded. Gornick occupies the same spot for a generation of writers that Ginzburg held for her.
It’s a strangely disordered time to read such carefully ordered and reordered thoughts as Gornick furnishes us with. Many of us are struggling to make sense daily of the most basic life tasks. We are utterly rearranged and trapped inside with ourselves and our thoughts. Gornick’s work can help pace that thinking. When we (hopefully) look back on the current situation, her technique of re-reading might help us: If we survive this, surely we will need to enter what Gornick calls “a state of readiness” to recalibrate and attempt to understand what we’re going through now.
The glimmers of good news for books that we reported in our last Book Notes have already, one fears, begun to dim. After three weeks of social distancing, print book sales fell by 9.2 percent in the week ending March 28 and, in a very ominous development for smaller publishers with thinner margins, publishing giant Macmillan, at the behest of its German corporate parent Holtzbrinck, announced layoffs and salary reductions across all divisions. Bookstores throughout the country, from the chains to tiny mom-and-pops, have been closing and furloughing workers, trying to preserve some cash flow and sense of community by encouraging online orders, curbside pickups and bespoke deliveries, virtual bookclubs and readings, GoFundMe campaigns, even piggy-backing on food take-out services. (Chicago’s legendary Seminary Coop, which had announced an innovative not-for-profit status last fall, raised $85,000 in four days against an anticipated $1 million loss between March and June.) Please, if you can find a way to support your local bookstore, now is the time. As author James Patterson said, announcing his own campaign to raise $1 million to save bookstores, "If we don't get it done now, we may wake up one day to find there's a new degree of normalcy returning to our daily lives and then find a lot of bookstores are gone. If we act now, we can literally save them." He is reaching out to fellow tycoons like Michael Bloomberg and novelist and Jeff-Bezos ex MacKenzie. Looking forward to seeing how that works out.
As Amazon workers, like other “essential” workers who are charged with tending to the daily needs of sheltering consumers, struggle for paid leave and safer working conditions, the book industry relief organization Binc announced record distributions to booksellers in need. “The biggest concern and worry booksellers have is stabilizing their housing,” said Binc Director of Development Kathy Bartson. “We’re preventing them from being homeless.” (LitHub listed other relief funds for laid off bookstore workers.) Newly unemployed booksellers banded together to create their own virtual shop, the aptly-named Bookstore at the End of the World, on the new online book market, Bookshop.org.
Meanwhile authors are already starting to feel the pinch. As they scrambled to make virtual the trail of readings and appearances that the modern book launch demands of the once-lonely scribe, the share of new works in the nation’s top sellers began to drop. Two authors, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum, got together to create a collective virtual book tour for authors whose tours had been cancelled, involving fellow authors, publishers, and bookstores in the effort to make authors’ many-year labor on their new books visible online. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as “A Mighty Blaze.” We are too overwhelmed from our little perch to summarize for you all the other opportunities to connect with new authors sprouting up through bookstores, publishers, and libraries. Please think about where your own local or personal book-connections lie and give them a moment or two of your much-longed-for digital attention.
However energetic authors may be in wrestling with the new realities, these are hard conditions for creative people, who generally do not have regular salaries, benefits, or substantial savings. The Authors League, the PEN Emergency Fund, and our own platform Substack have all announced grant programs to aid writers in trouble. The stimulus bill passed by Congress on March 25 dedicated funds to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and loosened some restrictions on grant-giving. As Elliot Figman, executive director of Poets & Writers, told LitHub, “Relative to other fields, the NEA is more important to literature because of the relative lack of support from foundations.” LitHub also reported that the Ford Foundation announced this week a COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund working to stabilize New York City-based social services and arts and cultural organizations, funded by a consortium of foundations and nonprofits. It is Germany, however, that seems to be leading the world in emergency arts funding (as well as curve-flattening), with a generous aid package for artists and arts institutions, including $54 billion in direct grants for freelancers, accessed via quick online application.
Dear reader, if all this sounds quite hectic and desperate, it is. Those of us fortunate enough to be sheltering, let’s try to take some time with a good book, and nourish ourselves for the hard journey ahead.
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