The iPocalypse?...Why, then, do we read? There’s something Buddhist about literary reading, as I understand it — you drop yourself into a little pocket of silence and peace and allow magical things to happen to your consciousness. I read, on the most basic level, because it makes me happy. It calms my brain down. My wife and I sometimes refer to this as “textual healing”: if I’m in a wretched mood, feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again. This practice, if you’re receptive to it, can come to define your life — can come in fact to seem like the very definition of a rich life.
My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another.
Thomas Carlyle, in 1831, warned of what he saw as the increasing self-consciousness of the world of letters: “By and by it will be found that all Literature has become one boundless self-devouring Review.” He meant this as a nightmare scenario, but I’ve always found it exciting. Because isn’t that what the greatest works of literature always are? Isn’t “Ulysses” a boundless, self-devouring review of the “Odyssey,” “Hamlet,” “Madame Bovary” and even Carlyle himself? And isn’t “Molloy” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses”? Isn’t “Infinite Jest” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses” and “Molloy” and “JR” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “White Noise”? The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.
- Sam Anderson