A Reading Life: Portraits of Readers in Fiction



In past blogs I’ve brought to your attention a number of recent publications that aim to underscore the importance of the humanities and, more particularly, demonstrate the values of reading literature, either as part of a school curriculum or as a self-initiated program of self-improvement. I’ve pointed to a number of non-fiction works in which a zealous member of book culture describes a lifetime of reading. The latest of these is Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read; The Serious Pleasure of Books, to which I referred in my February 6th blog “Another Passionate Apology for the Humanities,” a review of Rachel Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

There are fictional equivalents to these memoirs/testimonies. A number of semesters back I used Bernhard’s Schlink’s The Reader (2001, Film adaptation 2008) in a fiction class that focused on readers and the reading experience. Schlink’s work is a story about a two-stage relationship between Michael, who comes of age in post-WWII Germany, and an older woman with whom he has a brief affair when he is a curious adolescent. The tryst rituals include his readings of literary works to this uneducated, and, as we learn later, illiterate woman. The second part of the story is a tale of the post-Nazi generation and its attempts to come to terms with “the sins of the fathers, and mothers.” For a number of years after her affair with Michael, Hanna, now identified as a concentration camp guard, is convicted of war crimes and sent to prison. Devoted to her in a different way, the older Michael, an attorney, still believing in her dormant intellectual capacity, brings books to her. Michael, the book’s narrator, makes the argument that people like Hanna, a creature of historical circumstance, deserve our empathy and forgiveness – and the acknowledgement that they can be moved and consoled by great books.

Another work set in Germany, this time during the war, explores this human appetite for reading. The Book Thief (2005, Film Adaptation 2013) is a work by Markus Zusak, an Australian-born writer whose previous work captured attention in the Young Adult marketplace. Placed into a foster home in the early part of the war by a distressed mother, Zusak’s Leisel seeks to redeem her impoverished and dangerous circumstances through reading. The plan is made difficult because of Nazi book burning campaigns and the prohibitions on library patronage. Young Leisel is assisted in her endeavors by a sympathetic father, a neighborhood confidant (a boy who resists recruiting attempts by the Hitler youth group), and Max, a sickly young Jewish intellectual who the family is hiding away in the basement. Hanna’s zeal for reading leads her to make contact with the wife of a high-place commandant who clandestinely supplies the young girl with books from her private collection. Our intrepid young heroine is challenged to balance the moral uplift in the works that she reads with the degradation of human life and spirit under the Nazis. Zuzak cleverly makes Death the narrator of this story, which gives it a sense of both poignancy and detachment.

One new entry is this “fiction with central characters who are readers” category is An Unnecessary Woman (2014) by Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine. Like the novels mentioned above, it’s set at a time of upheaval and uncertainty: Beirut from the start of the 1975 civil war through the 21st century present. The central character is no optimistic youth however. Alameddine has created a dyspeptic and reclusive 72 year old Arabic female narrator whose life is a record of the resilience required to live through extended times of personal and national turmoil. Aaliya Saleh is a monologist who is attractive and repellent, often within the same paragraph. She randomly ranges over a wide range of topics. She looks back ironically at her 4 year marriage to an impotent man. She documents her struggles growing up with step-brothers, children of her mother and the man she marries after the first husband dies young. She records with amusement the communal life of the three middle-aged women, all married, who occupy apartments in her building. These are the “three witches” who meet daily for the coffee klatch and distract her from her work. And without getting too deeply into the extremely complicated politics of Lebanon, she wickedly wishes a pox on the houses of all the various internal sects and outside forces who are jockeying for control. A thoroughly secular and atheistic woman she is especially critical of religiously inspired bloodshed. She bemoans the transformation of a book-curious young kid into an Islamic radical. Yet she’s not defenseless; for a long period in her post-divorce life she sleeps with an AK-47. No public complainer about her aging and infirmities, she speaks honestly about her body’s breakdown (incontinence, arthritis and a host of other problems) and mental deterioration. An insomniac, she has difficulty harnessing memory at once overactive and atrophied.

What saves her from being an unpleasant companion for the reader is her own self-knowledge and self-deprecation. She knows that she is becoming a crotchety septuagenarian and thus is able to halt her slide. And she humorously comments on the way in which the blue hair rinse has made her look foolish.

The title of the work summarizes tidily her self-evaluation. She sees her life as insignificant; she’s a mere speck in a vast cosmos and a non-factor in social structures closer to home. She’s led to these conclusions by the male dominated Lebanese society, the hopeless of the political situation, but also by a kind of biological determinism. Melancholia is part of her DNA.  In the philosophical works of writers like Spinoza and Sartre and Sebald she finds confirmation for who she is and how she is to live.

What makes this novel a document of the reading life is her 50-year translation project. Working as a clerk in a modest bookstore, she has access to inexpensive and free books. Assuming that most of Beiruti citizens are speakers, as she is, of Arabic, English and French, she chooses instead to translate works by German, Russian, and Spanish writers into “first language” Arabic. She often translates translations, for instance a French translation of Anna Karenina.. She’s aware of what gets lost in this dual translation process. At the end of the novel she is contemplating which novel of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano she will undertake next.

She’s unschooled but we easily grant to her the insights about the translation process. There’s just one catch to this project which has produced 37 works: she puts them into a box with no intention to have them published. The process becomes a way to create order and predictability – and, when necessary, to excuse oneself from social life – in a world that offers little of these qualities. She wonders whether citizens of nations with high levels of predictability (like America) create the illusion of self-control. Aaliya is not a woman who proclaims the transformative power of literature, it’s role in the achievement of a fuller humanity or the solidarity of the human community. She eschews the standard “defense of literature” argument that you find in works like Lesser’s and Mead’s (and a host of other writers responding to the perceived crisis in the humanities). And it’s clear that art and literature are impotent to dispel the particular brand of tribalism being played out in the Lebanese quagmire. She realizes and accepts that she is a minority in a non-reading culture. The challenge of daily survival is not a good foundation for a book culture.  Her good neighbor Fadia boasts about owning only two books, and she hasn’t completed coloring the second.

Is there anything else that reading, this isolating activity, can provide us with other than with a necessary habituation to a task, seemingly no different than vacuuming the carpet or balancing the checkbook every other week? Yes, for what we see throughout the novel is the largely self-taught Aaliya drawing on her vast reading experience, and her familiarity with art history and the classical European musical tradition, to get an angle on and to more deeply understand both world affairs and the quotidian scenes around her. Observing Bush’s misadventures in Lebanon’s backyard, she summons up Shelley’s “Ozmandias,” a poem about human vanity and short-lived global conquests. In dealing with her step-brother’s efforts to delivery her senile mother to her apartment, Aaliya imagines her “succubus” mother as a figure in a painting by Goya and the larger scene as an outtake from an Antonioni movie, all accompanied in her head by a Liszt etude. Will most readers find this “use of the arts” enough? Probably not, but this diminished function of literature is sufficient for our fully-realized, headstrong narrator. We are grateful for this opportunity to look in on her rich, complicated inner life, one shaped by her eclectic reading and the alternative worlds and small pleasures it provides.

Any works that you know (and love) that provide portraits of readers and the reading process?


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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