Stéphane Mallarmé, the 19th-century French symbolist recently voted Poet Most Likely To Be Mistaken for a Breakfast Condiment, once wrote: “ ... et l’hiver resterait la saison créatrice intellectuelle ” (“winter will always be the season of intellectual creativity”). I always find I share a great commonality of thought with Mallarmé, especially when it comes to his critical writings on Poe and his commonsensical approach to deficit reduction. However, I am particularly sharing of this, the most profound and pithy of his seasonal sentiments. As much for me as for Stéphane—more so, even, considering that he’s dead and everything—winter will always be the
season in which I undertake (and I use the word advisedly) what I blushingly refer to as my intellectual and creative work.
In this, I suspect, I am not alone. When I hear people speculating about why a country as sparsely populated as Canada should have produced such a vibrant squad of astoundingly good writers, I always want to timidly raise my hand and suggest that, like everything else, it all comes down to the weather. Given what most of us have to contend with between the Day of the Dead and Victoria Day, the prospect of lingering indoors, hovering over a heating vent and agonizing over the placement of a semicolon, becomes really, really attractive. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, doesn’t much require the imposition of some external discipline, such as being shackled to the desk. No, you can keep your chains in the trunk of your Pinto where they might be useful, should you be foolish enough to venture out and find yourself stuck on an icy road. In short, it is no accident that only a single consonant distinguishes the words “writer” and “winter.”
For the writer, winter is a time of growth and harvest, and summer is the time for sowing. Summer is the season for recharging the batteries, for replenishing the wellspring, for laying the table for the muse, for sterilizing the forceps used by literature’s midwife. Or obstetrician. Legislation on this point varies from region to region across the country. While there is no guarantee that the hoped-for regeneration will take place, the surest way I know of facilitating such a fertilizing is through reading. Reading and writing are without doubt part of a continuum, and reading, even more than travel, is where writing begins.
All writers who share a language have the same tools at their disposal. They all use the same lexicon; they all explore the same themes. And the only way they can nudge themselves out of the vocational complacency that naturally settles on them as a consequence of spending so much time alone organizing sentences into paragraphs into chapters, is to study how their colleagues make use of identical materials to achieve such startlingly different results. Reading can take on an edge that is both celebratory and competitive, and this (as Martha Stewart would say) is a good thing. Innovation, when it comes, is not born of isolation. It’s only by observing another writer’s craft, by taking note of how he handles the ins and outs of love or envy or longing, by admiring or looking askance at how she does it differently, does it better, or worse, that the reader finds the wherewithal to become a writer again, come the bleak midwinter. This is not to say that writing is about imitation, although it can be that, but it is certainly about echo. Summer reading resonates in winter writing not through slavish parroting, but in subtler ways. The discarding of old habits. A willingness to take more chances. A slight shift in the centre of gravity. This happens. It’s an honorable and necessary part of the process. The same principle
Reading in the fresh air has its and its drawbacks
could be applied to painting, or to tennis, or to software engineering. It could be applied to cooking, come to that. You need someone else to come in and stir the pot for new flavors to emerge.
I don’t mean to suggest that summer reading is a necessary chore or obligation, like detonating the weeds or getting a booster shot. It’s a pleasure too, and as a pleasure it is qualitatively different from reading in the deep freeze. When I have the chance to read in the winter it’s almost never with a plan in mind. I pick up whatever happens to be close to hand, whatever has been given to me, whatever has had a glowing review or appears on the best-seller list, or whatever I might have to read for work. In other words, I am getting a fix, feeding a habit, reacting rather than acting. In the winter, I am a passive reader. In the summer, round about the middle of June, I almost always set myself a project. Typically, this will have to do with filling some of the lacunae in my reading, and very often I will make my focus one author. Usually, though not always, I will set my sights on someone who’s safely dead and out of the way so that I can get through the whole canon without worrying that he or she will sneak up behind me on an inside track and meet me at the finish line with something new.
It’s shocking what and whom I’ve still to read, and some day, if you catch me in a confessional mood, I’ll spill all the terrible beans. Three summers ago, I finally had to look at myself in the mirror and admit that the only Jane Austen I’d ever managed was Pride and Prejudice, and that was under duress. So, I made my way through the others (well, most of the others; I didn’t do The Watsons, even though I have some cousins who go by that name), and was powerfully glad I did. It didn’t feel like work at all, and it also allowed me to be in fashion when she came into her own on both the small and big screens. Suddenly, everyone was talking about her. Not even the great Miss Jane was immune to the prevailing belief that a book is not sufficient unto itself, and that it only achieves its apotheosis when it becomes a movie or a mini-series. Two summers ago, I turned 40, and was so traumatized by the event that I read nothing but self-help books, which didn’t work, as anyone who knows me will quickly attest. Last summer, I decided to give myself heart and soul to Iris Murdoch. I read The Flight from the Enchanter, A Fairly Honourable Defeat and The Sea, the Sea, and was halfway through The Philosopher’s Pupil when I finally had to admit that I just don’t like Iris Murdoch, didn’t like her nasty characters and their hateful ways, and didn’t want to ruin my summer with them. I turned to Mary Wesley instead, and was much, much happier. Of course, when I learned that Murdoch was suffering from Alzheimer’s and would probably never write again, I was full of a kind of stupid remorse. Perhaps she is not the sort of writer who should be taken in in one fell swoop. This summer, I will try to make it up to her.
Vancouver-based broadcaster and author Bill Richardson has just completed Scorned & Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics, to be published by Knopf Canada this fall.
If I had to point to one aspect of reading that pleases me above all others, I would say that what I like best is that it is a private affair. Sometimes, we want to shut out even our nearest and dearest, and there is no better way to do that than with a book. The only creature who can safely violate the sacred space between this reader and the page is my cat, when she is in a lap-dancing mood. Other-
wise, like Garbo, I vant to be alone. I hate reading out loud to another person, and can’t abide being read to. I am a control freak in this regard, and want to observe the narrative as it is played out in the theatre of my own imagining.
When we think of summertime reading, however, there is almost always an aberrant public dimension that comes into play. This has to do with the idea of reading outdoors, in company, and almost always on the beach. I am amazed that so many people manage this so successfully, or at least do it so willingly, and that they are able to neutralize or ignore the many impediments to reading that are part and parcel of la plage. (The phonetic connection between plage and plague, especially in a bilingual country, is no more random than that between writer and winter.) All the elements that make the beach attractive to people who like the beach—sun, sand, water, the smell of roasting human flesh, the cloying waft of oil and lotion, the spectacle of buffed young people sporting about on the shore, and so on—are anathema to anyone who wants to enjoy the quiet communion that is reading. There are so many distractions, so many annoyances. Loud music, grains in the eye, glare on the page, head injuries incurred by enthusiastically spiked volco leyballs, the imminence of melanoma: all these siphon attention away from the S matter at hand, bibliographically speaker ing, and nourish the idea that summer, t above all else, is a time to equate recref! ation with vacuity.
£ Not that I’m immune to such tactics of 1 sunny suasion. Oh, no. I’m not some Mr. High and Mighty squinting out from between the slats of his Venetian blinds, high up in some ivory tower; not some tight-lipped priss sneering at the wasteful fools who frolic below. Nosirree Bob! Like everyone else, I start out every summer imagining that my life will resemble a beer commercial. Like everyone else, I’ll make a trip to the beach from time to time, and always with book in hand. Often, just around this time of year, I will wend my way out to UBC, and slip-slide down the sandy, eroding cliffs to Wreck Beach. There, I will doff my duds, and splay upon a log, just me, my chosen tome, and the bookmark God gave me. Girded only by virtue, I’ll read, trying not to be distracted by the vendors selling frozen daiquiris, by the pot peddlers, by the waft of sewage coming off the inlet. I’ll apply myself as diligently as I can to the page, averting my gaze from the various views. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but every year I think I’ll be able to bring this off. And every year, I wind up giving in, closing my book, and joining in the passing parade. Another chance to read shot to hell! Oh, how my writing to come will suffer for this! Oh, well. There are times when the mind just can’t be allowed to win, and that’s not a bad lesson to learn, even in middle age. If you’re down at Wreck, I’ll be easy to know. Look for the pasty guy with the daiquiri, and a copy of The Philosopher’s Pupil under his arm. Come say howdy. We can talk about how much we’re looking forward to the winter. □
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