It’s in those moments when I’m not really thinking of anything, that I think of a lot of things — In the morning when cold water kisses my skin, when I’m galvanized by the minty smell of shaving cream, when the aftershave burns coolly on my face. These kind of subconscious thoughts usually float to the surface of my mind during my runs and walks, but now it’s Ramadhan, and sadly I haven’t had the discipline to make time for them.
I thought about reading, about books, about authors — A thought popped up from memory — I don’t remember who said it, but he said that reading should be treated like a conversation that you have with somebody who’s smarter, or at least, different from you.
It’s okay to disagree with an author. It’s fine to criticize her work. In fact, to simply take in whatever she has to say would be an insult, because it misses the point. There’s a William Butler Yeats quote that says education isn’t the filling of a pail but the igniting of a fire. As you tread along a book, or as you close it and put it on a shelf, you’d have to ask yourself, “Does this make sense to me?” What was the most important thing that the author wanted to say? And do I agree with what the author said? And if I agree, how can I put it to use? How can I apply it in my own life?”
I may have read quite a number of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, but I can frankly say that there were only two of them that I really loved. There were many instances in which I thought Hemingway seemed rather self-absorbed and arrogant, in the macho hero image that he had immortalized in his stories. He was limited in how he thought of himself and the people around him.
Jack Kerouac’s another author that I admire — Only in terms of his art, though. On The Road was like a pocketbook guide for how to live my life, but only for a while. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in reality Kerouac lived very miserably, and his Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty characters are more of role models for idiocy. It turned out that it was his jazzy, supposedly spontaneous bop phrases that won my heart. Aimlessness would never suit me as a good life philosophy. The fishes who take life as it is and “go with the flow” are the ones that are already dead. And not to forget, I always hated how he saw and treated women like pieces of flesh instead of people with hearts and souls.
Discovering John Steinbeck’s novels as a young teenager was a godsend. I’ve always felt as if his works were written specially for me, like he was destined to teach me about the ways of the world. I didn’t know what he was thinking about when he wrote a story of two bindlestiffs named George and Lenny, but I understood what they went through and I thought, “I’ve been there too”. Neither did I know what was going on in his life when he wrote his magnum opus the East of Eden, but I felt like the character Adam Trask’s experiences were no different than mine. And so I thought, “I’ve been there too”.
What of books that you don’t understand? What do you make of them?
It could happen that you aren’t ready for a book, that your life experiences haven’t amounted to what the book wants you to understand.
I read Catcher In The Rye when I was 15. I was hungry, impatient, full of passion and ready to take over the world. But I just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “This book doesn’t have meaning,” I told my sister, “There isn’t a single lesson in the book. It’s just about a cynical, angsty teenager who hated everything in the world.” My sister responded, “It teaches you about life.”
I kept the book on my shelf and didn’t open it for years. As the pages turned a tan brown, I realized that there were many things I didn’t understand when I first read it; so many clever and subtle things I missed in the book. I hadn’t gone through enough in my own life to appreciate what the book actually had to say.
I learned that its author, J.D. Salinger served in the Second World War, and saw more combat than most people. The strange thing was that upon returning home, instead of writing about the war, he wrote this story. The character Holden Caulfield, like Salinger, wanted to fit in with the rest of humanity and acclimate himself with its values. But when he went to find humanity, there was no humanity there.
It’s alright if you don’t understand a book. There is no rush in literature. Its sweet lessons are learned not rotely, but through the slow boil of time and patience. That, I think, is one of the most beautiful things about literature.