Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Forster and the Particularism of Literary Pathways

I am pondering individual proclivities to reading, and why one particular literary diet satisfies one but leaves another unfulfilled; to take those poised in the bookshop hovering in disparate sections: one enticed by contemporary romance, another by science fiction, a third browsing the classics, a fourth a non-fiction aficionado of historical bent - with as many specific genres it seems as there are readers to browse them. (That is not to say that general readers are perpetually genre-specific, but perhaps are inclined towards a specific kind of book). To take individual choice at one particular moment in time - to follow a nondescript Everyman to the checkout counter, his book in hand; one might ask what are the influences that determine his particular selection?

Perhaps each of us is traveling our own particular literary pathway, defined and directed by circumstance and personality; in the course of our lives we are exposed to particular environmental influences: from infancy and schooldays that are reading-rich or book-barren, to an adolescence of novel-immersion of one kind or another - where nebulous thoughts and vague unformed musings are given literary wing, and thence adulthood where the nurtured trends of literary predispositions become increasingly well-formed. I do not mean to say that we are intellectually closed upon reaching maturity, but perhaps our literary preferences, if you will, tend to have solidified; that those who read narrowly in adolescence maintained similar reading habits as adults and conversely so.

And what in particular prompts and forges literary proclivity? Each of us, in the cultivation of specific knowledge, in the unique accumulation of experience, in the gathering of thought and influence that mold and shape subsequent attitude and mindset - these define our particular literary paths and impact our bookstore predilections. I do not advocate environmental determinism, nor do I favor the old genetic adage of nature versus nurture (rather an advocate of amalgamation: a mutually entwined back and forth between the two); I similarly believe that a voracious, trans-genre reader in adulthood has not only enjoyed a literary-nourished youth, but also possesses a thirsting intellectual curiosity of a kind that can never be quenched. To refine and expand upon the literary parallel: nature (an insatiable appetite for expanding intellectual horizons as enabled within the confines of books - a predisposition coded in nucleotides within the undulations of double helix - the genetic component) and nurture (the climate within which this appetite operates - benign and balmy, where reading-seeds are not only provided but actively cultivated). For a half-hearted reader of casual and remote acquaintance with literature, a subtle interplay of genetic parameters and environmental influence are also at work.

E.M Forster, the English novelist, suggests that "the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves." I would take the opportunity to reiterate the phrase 'particular path' in the context of this humble musing. So let us again imagine the literary travels of a commonplace everyman or woman, who has received an average dose of book availability at libraries and within the course of schooling, maintains a modest bookcase of various novels recommended by friends, who enjoys a sprinkling of reading here and there as time and opportunity permits - both circumscribed by work constraints and familial imperatives - perhaps novels tend to be of an 'easier read' - a chapter or two before slumber beckons. I propose this as the average literary pathway traveled (perhaps more aptly a highway to accommodate increased traffic) - the primary demographic for publishing houses - the inveterate purchasers of airport paperbacks and bestselling quick-read thrillers. A market which is well-filled by those writers singularly suited to provide it.

However, perhaps writers of a different sort (and I do not mean to diminish the talent of those who produce prolific bestselling quick-read thrillers of the kind publishing houses covet - what author would not want to be so desired?) such as those who produce a complicated work that is not so readily classified into literary pigeonholes, whose work cannot, with lucid clarity, be demonstrated to resonate with this or that particular demographic, but who labor beyond available years and ink with furrowed brow and rapidly-arthritic fingers, whose hair grows gray in the service of the muse, who are deeply compelled in the penning of a particular narrative without which there is scarcely rest nor reason...for those writers, I believe, (as well as the readers who love them) must have traveled a circuitous literary path peppered with an admixture of  intellectually stimulating book-samplings. And perhaps, like Frost's, it is one less-traveled through the lushly tangled profusion of exotic undergrowth (to extend the botanical metaphor - one does imagine pathside books perched like the fleshy Rafflesia keithii, an improbably massive parasitic flower that blooms in the dark of the Malaysian rainforest - like books of brilliance that lack advocacy or blossom similarly deprived of both light and readership.)  A jungle springs to mind simply due to the unprecedented diversity of plant life that thrives in the moist damp of mulch and filtered sunlight; and perhaps also to my propensity to emulate Livingston and lose myself in tangential jungle trails, lured ever onwards by one impossibly marvelous book after another...

The noun 'path' implies the singular, distinct from all other literary trails - which of course is indubitably not the case. As Forster submits above we are perpetually influenced by other readers, other authors, other books - if we all travel our unique literary paths, shadowed by the foliage of selective perception, it is those books that are slightly advanced in certain ideas, but ones to which we already incline, to which we are receptive; the literature that hang tantalizing from boughs ahead like glistening fruit which we are eager to taste...they are incorporated, welcomed into the literary lexicon and the journey continues. For those on a disparate path, who travel in a different direction, their particular literary receptivity is entirely distinct from our own. Paths criss-cross, intersect and weave away, we meet others at crossroads, sharing and exclaiming upon the mutually-agreed upon brilliance of a particular work - but for those on a disparate path through an entirely different environment - they will seek, find and display a receptivity for an entirely different kind of work. Perhaps a period of particular intellectual fruitfulness is defined by a crossroads, by a literary hub, where trails converge and individual horizons expand. Reminiscent of certain places at certain times that produce a prolific intellectual flowering of near-dwelling cerebrals: Athens in the fifth century BCE, Florence in the sixteenth century, and in 1820's Concord, Massachusetts (the golden age of American literature) where Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott (to name but a few) coalesced in the relative darkness to initiate the sweeping phenomenon that was Transcendentalism.

Perhaps this analogy of an individually-traveled reading path provides some insight into literary subjectivity, and that each of us as readers and writers are a product at any given time of our genetic predispositions for intellectual exploration as well as the environment through which we have passed. Our journey, so distinctly influenced, takes us into the depths of things, the way brightly lit by the sharp pinpricks of literary works (like stars in the dark expanse of sky) that illuminate both our minds and the numerous tangential paths that branch off in dendritic complexity, each veering off on another kind of subject entirely... barely discernible tracks lit by the warmly incandescent glow of books. I have been lost in this literary  jungle for decades now and fervently hope I will never find my way out....wandering from Dostoyevsky to molecular biology, from anthropological treatises on early man to philosophical ramblings, from Hardy and Shakespeare to biographies of Mozart and Frederick II...so many paths lit by a multitude of meaningful works! So if I see you there similarly enthralled with a particular book - you may query "PJ, I presume?" but like the most famous explorer to whom this question was originally posed, I will never leave the jungle, not while breath sustains me, or books beckon me onward in that perpetual literary adventure that is reading and writing.


  1. Dear PJ,

    I was once asked how I would feel if we (humans) were born with the sum total of human knowledge, foregoing the need for education beyond assimilation to the immediate world and current affairs. I simply do not know how to respond to that idea, because my antiquated way of thinking enjoys the pursuit of historical inquiry and the idea of "not knowing" something that requires further investigation. Your musings prompted me to reconsider this issue again, and I pose the same question to you, because I wonder how you would feel living in a world without a need for books?

    1. Oh the horror! The horror!! To borrow Brando's immortal rendition - I would despair indeed dear Shari! I love the journey as much as the end-destination of knowledge accumulated...I love the thrill of making mental connections, I love the growth of understanding, I love the look and feel of the books on my shelf....I love the ongoing debate and intellectual back and forth - and if all sum knowledge was a prior given - what would there be to discuss? How utterly banal life would be indeed - there would be nothing to learn from others, no intellectual growth and development...a personal nightmare of horrendous proportions! But a fascinating thought experiment dear Shari - thank you for your visit and your most interesting commentary.

  2. PJ, it's no small feat to combine organized thinking, clarity of purpose, a vast culture encompassing the spirit of the whole literary production to date, and the will to shed light on reading and writing whys and wherefores.

    I admire your open-mindedness about "roads leading to roads," since my intransigence keeps me away from many. Trapped in a self-devised labyrinth, I will not ax down the hedges that might free me.

    Quoting Vargas Llosa, "nature puts a limit to the books you can read." I am on the way to that limit, and must make choices accordingly. My inclinations lead me to reread rather than explore new paths. Rereading at this time of my life adds new dimensions to what I understood thirty, forty, fifty years ago. The new books I read are prompted by the old ones.

    I occasionally venture into books I wouldn't have noticed had their authors not asked my opinion about them. Some offer pleasant, welcome surprises. The only merit of others lies in the writer's effort to concoct them.

    No doubt the corpus of my early readings unconsciously guides my writing. You propose a much richer literary adventure, and I sincerely hope that many will join you in your luscious jungle.

    1. Marta - thank you so much for your visit, and your (as-ever) most insightful contribution! I am currently embroiled/enthralled/immersed in Les Miserables for approximately the fourth or fifth read and understand your point completely - there are those novels which one must simply return to again and again - they are so richly layered and are imbued with meaning that becomes apparent with each new perusal. And as you say with the limitation of time one must choose their books most carefully - thank you for your visit to my humble musings my dear friend, and for your own wonderful musing!

  3. Dear Marta,

    You write like a Queen of the Literary Jungle!

    1. She does indeed - an inspiration to us all! :) Thank you Shari!