Monday Writing Motivation: A book is a machine to think with
Let’s go back to what I’ve probably devoted more of my life to than any other activity – with the possible exception of sleep, which in any event is, for the most part at least, less activity than passivity: reading.
I.A. Richards, who was the English critic du jour when I was studying the subject at university, memorably observed that “the book is a machine to think with”. He was obviously speaking from the perspective of the reader rather than the writer. For some reason that insight has stayed with me all the years since.
And, now, through the alchemy of reading itself, I’ve had my understanding of this peculiar function of reading broadened by a new book by George Saunders. It’s called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with an explanatory sub-title: (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life.)
In the book, Saunders analyses seven classic Russian short stories. But he does so not in academic fashion, considering theme, symbolism, etc – but as a reader might. And in so doing he explores the workings of that machine that Richards identified.
Here’s how that machine works:
Before you begin a book, you might perhaps have read a review of it, and so have some inkling of its subject matter. Or you might be reading it because you’ve read other books by the same writer, and enjoy his style, the rollicking – or seductive, or clever – way in which he unfolds a story.
But you don’t know in any great detail what the story is. So your expectations of what you’re about to read are broad and unfocused.
The first page starts eliminating possibilities. You learn that the book concerns a tightly-controlled character (let’s call her Maud) who appears at the end of her tether: her marriage has collapsed. Her children are angry with her, blaming her for breaking up the family, and choose to join their father rather than share the rather pokey flat that their mother has moved into. Her distractions have caused her to lose the plot at work, and her boss threatens to dismiss her. She responds to these various pressures by withdrawing into herself, by drinking rather too heavily, by feeling sorry for herself.
So very quickly your focus narrows. You feel a certain sympathy with the protagonist’s predicament. You remember periods in your own life when the future felt precarious.
But you also know something about story. You know that something is bound to happen to help Maud change direction.
You anticipate a range of possible rescuers. And lo! on page 11 Maud bumps into an old acquaintance, someone she knew at university, someone who’d introduced her on one chaotic night, to magic mushrooms.
And you, the reader, think: Aha! This encounter is significant – because everything in a story is significant, right? You also realise that Maud wasn’t always the overwound clock she appears to be today. Once she was a free-spirit, taking risks, throwing herself into life with abandon. We ask: what has happened to change her? What has brought her to this pass?
As we work our way through the story, these questions will keep occurring to us. What happened to make this increasingly complex character the person she is? We speculate: perhaps her old friend will throw her a lifeline. Perhaps this new man she’s met will be the supportive partner her husband never was? Each new response of hers causes us to revise our opinion of who she is, sharpening our understanding of her, and shaping our anticipation of what she might become.
If the writer is a skilled one, perhaps even a great one, we will broaden our questions so that our interrogation of this character’s choices becomes, also, an interrogation of our own choices; our judgements of her decisions, a judgement of our own.
This is how George Sanders describes the way he proposes to lay out his book:
“I’ll give you the story a page at a time. Afterward, we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?”
It seems to me that this is a very powerful means of assessing a story – whether it’s our own, or Gogol’s.