Wednesday, July 14, 2010

John Madera, On Reading

"The Whatness of Our Whoness: On Reading

In this land of bilk and money, where the snares of immediacy (of self-gratification, communication, data mining, matchmaking, etc.) may sometimes fool us into thinking that we’re getting closer, that we’re finally nesting within the intimacy we crave, that we matter, somehow, to someone; that it is, after all, a small world; where technological marvels with their ringing bells and screeching whistles have stunned us into a state of wow, causing us to say 'awesome' so frequently it’s lost all meaning; where apathy in its various forms is the new cool; in this land of I, me, mine, this land where time is money and money is the only thing that matters, the act of reading from a book might just be a singular waste of time, or it might be one of the most life-affirming acts, the continuum where we discover, as Joyce wrote in Ulysses, the 'whatness of our whoness'.

My reading habits have usually been disorderly, no, chaotic, difficult to pin down, never falling into any consistent approach, or system, or school of study; more improvisatory, a peculiar kind of going with the flow (a flow whose currents flow back to the past and forward to the future) with my, admittedly, sometimes fleeting interests, or in connection with some project I’m working on, e.g., research for a story I’m crafting, or reading works within a particular genre I’m also working within like, for instance, the year I read approximately seventy-five books of fantasy when I was working on one of my own; but on the whole my reading has been catholic and wanton, if I may be allowed to have those two words be kissing cousins. That said, my reading has, within the past few years, become more intentional, focused, and, I hope, purposeful. For instance, much of my reading last year consisted of reading and reviewing contemporary works of fiction, concentrating specifically on the literature published by independent presses, of which I felt produced, and I still feel produces, the fresher, more ambitious, more accomplished, and, at times, even revelatory work in literature today. However, whenever I encountered a contemporary work that was weak—and the lion’s share of that weakness was usually found in the occasional book I’d read from the major presses, or from the internet’s ever-proliferating, self-reflexive, self-congratulatory, sloppy, and solipsistic websites, and especially in the submissions pile I was reading from as a fiction editor—I would turn back, and some would say, turn back the clock, to earlier works, and find myself immersed in sentences that sung almost operatically and virtuosically, and bemoan the sad and sorry state of literature today. I’ve written about this before, but it’s important to once again note, that this notion, that is, that there was a golden age or ages of literature, is, of course, a fantasy, and a shortsighted one, in fact, since any kind of surface study of any era would reveal that it contained a similarly disproportionate level of mediocre work. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there are so many contemporary writers who are producing work that is ambitious and challenging, that explores language with great creativity, adventure, rigor, and intelligence. So I seesaw, no, I thumb the scales sometimes to privilege past eras, but I also pendulate, going back and forth between the past and present. I feel, though, that I may be going back more than I will forth for the next long while. The more I read of the recognized literary masterworks, the more I see how contemporary literature is indebted to the works of the past, and, sadly, how often it falls short. It’s no grand revelation, but it does raise some questions, namely, how important is it for me to read a contemporary work of literature if I haven’t read the work from which it was most certainly derived, or would not have existed if said work was not produced. And as I realize this, I also recognize the vast gaps of my understandings of the interconnections, borrowings, ideas, within the history of literature, and this, in turn, adds to my ever-present anxiety about all I want to, need to, and should read.

Yes, I love to read and to share what I’ve read; and I also love to hear what others have read and are reading. Though aware of the many distractions competing for our attentions, diminishing our already tapped time to simply be, to enjoy the sound of the 'infinite great fall of rain' (as Joyce wrote in Ulysses) instead of tap-tap-tapping away at some keyboard, I’m always surprised to talk to someone who isn’t reading anything at the moment or hasn’t read anything in a while, or who, worst of all, isn’t worried about it. The surprise is even greater when that person happens to be a writer, and you’d be surprised by how many there are who aren’t reading, and if they are reading, they are usually reading their peers and contemporaries (a rather narrow menu for anyone with any kind of real appetite for invention, ambition, and creativity, for getting lost in a lacuna of language), and many of whom think that Hemingway is the only way, or that anorectic prose is somehow more evocative, relevant, insightful, or whatever. Though I certainly love cutting, bone white, crisp language, I also love luxuriant prose full of exposition, metaphor, lyricism, essayistic asides, etc., writing that utilizes the full resources of language. How rare it is to find it even in poetry.

Language, for me, comes from language, and ideas come from ideas, so I can’t imagine not reading books, for me the best source of language and ideas; they are a kind of food, an energy source, and, yes, one means of discovering, questioning, fracturing, critiquing the what of who I am and the who of what I am, of what and who I was and may become."

{John Madera's work is forthcoming in Conjunctions, The Believer, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Corduroy Mountain. His fiction has appeared in Opium Magazine, Featherproof Press, elimae, Everyday Genius, ArtVoice, Underground Voices, and Little White Poetry Journal #7. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, his reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Bookslut, The Collagist, DIAGRAM, Fiction Writers Review, Flatmancrooked, The Millions, The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature, The Quarterly Conversation, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, Tarpaulin Sky, Word Riot, and in 3:AM Magazine. He is editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing (Publishing Genius Press). He edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review. Former fiction editor at Identity Theory, he is senior flash fiction editor at jmww. His monthly column, “A Reader’s Log(orrhea),” may be found at The Nervous Breakdown.}


  1. I'm reading a trilogy of very dense novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the woman for whom Kingsley Amis left his wife. It alternates between something like 25 different POVs and is set in around WW11. Brilliant.

  2. Ah, somehow reading "a trilogy of very dense novels" feels pleasantly warming, even in this sweltering heat.

    Bravo to you for scaling a mountain!

  3. Great stuff! I think reading does become more purposeful when you start to see the act of writing as an avocation, a passion :)