Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rereading and the romance of words

I love to read, as I'm sure many of you do. I read many different formats, including blogs, magazines and books. Each has their own merits, but oh, I love books. While I have and use an e-reader, it's the weight of a book, the sound of the paper turning and the layout of the words on a page that give me secret shivers.

I don't have enough time to read. My life seems to be too full of the mundane details (gottagetreadyanddrivetowork, trafficisbad, ninehourslaterbravethecommutehome, gotothegym, what'sfordinner, thedisheswon'tdothemselves, finallyachancetoread and barelyachapterbeforeI....fall...asleep - sound familiar?) to consume books the way I used to. I miss it.

When I do have time to settle into a book I sometimes find myself choosing an old friend over something that might challenge me in new ways. Either option is good and valid, but when life is just too much I often choose comfort. The embrace of a beloved book is at least healthier than a half-pound of chocolate.

That's what I'm reading now, a desert island book, one I would take with me if I knew I could never read anything else every again. I'm sure you have a few books like that; I'd love to know what they are, so leave a comment.

As I'm reading this novel among novels I'm considering what is it that brings be back to this one volume. I've read it so many times that the cover has fallen off, the pages are stained with tea and the residue of wet fingertips from many baths. It's something about the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the story and the beauty of the writing.

The word "romance" has been limited in modern literature to stories dealing only with romantic sexual love, a fairly modern notion. Generally "romance" is taken to mean genre romance novels. There's nothing wrong with these, but it is a limitation on a useful word. (Stay with me here, I'm getting to the book in a moment.) Romantic sexual love is, of course, tremendously important and made moreso in modern Western society - much of our art and popular culture extolls the intensity of romantic love. I'm not complaining about this, but I think it means we sometimes neglect the other meanings of romance - that sense of romanticizing, the larger-than-life story.

My warm blanket, cup of tea, old friend novel, Possession by A.S. Byatt, encompasses both. Set in two times, in the mire of academia and the ocean of poetry, two scholars researching two poets uncover a hidden love affair and have one of their own. Byatt captures many distinct written voices - the overarching narrator, the two letter writers, their distinct poetic voices as well as incidental other voices that drift in and out. It's not a novel to be consumed quickly; I smell libraries and the ocean when I read it, I chew it in small chunks and luxuriate in the language.

Because that's what this book is: While it contains a multitude of love stories, the real romance here is language, how it pulls and compels, how we create and destroy worlds with words. I think that's why it's one of my top desert island books. Every time I read it I find something new. A new turn of phrase. A new observation on the power of a poem. This book makes me want to write and I can think of no higher praise.

When it comes down to it, I'm in love with words. Spoken or written, the well turned phrase makes my toes curl. In rereading an old friend it is truly an old romance, with the comfort and passion of a great love. I am inspired, surprised, delighted and yet unalarmed.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. I have so many of those books, I've almost stopped buying new ones - I can content myself with old friends in the little time I have to read. (As I typed that, I am reminded of the old round - Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold - perhaps a hint to me?) I think of the ones whose "hair has been loved off", the books where I've had to buy extra copies, or wish I had.

  2. It really is a challenge sometimes to decide how to spend my limited reading time. There are so many books I have yet to read but, just like you point out, quite a few that I'm dying to read again. A terrible dilemma!


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