A book you never finish reading

This column first ran in the Sunday Times on Sunday 22nd July 2018

LIGHT THE DARK; Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, Edited by Joe Fassler (Penguin Books, 2017)

5 stars – hell, 15 stars.
I bought this book by accident.

I was on a date in a bookstore, which is certainly the very best place to go on a date. For obvious reasons of already knowing you have books in common, but also because, particularly on a blind date, it provides opportunities to snoop on another person’s psyche. Their likes, dislikes, mannerisms and budget. You can catch sideways glances at them, for example, when they’re focused on the South African Fiction section, and you’re in the South African non-fiction section, standing at just the right angle, so they don’t know you’re watching them browse. An opportunity a coffee shop rarely offers.

As an aside, if they make a beeline for the SA Fiction Section AND make a purchase, you’re allowed to sleep with them (or marry them) on the first date. In this case, regular dating rules of engagement no longer apply.

But I digress. Somebody had obviously picked this book up and wandered around the store fondling it for a bit. Then foolishly changed their minds and put it down as they passed the notebook section. Which is where I stumbled upon it, while lewdly stroking a Moleskine.

I’m wary of anthologies of writing by writers about writing. I always get so excited when I find them, and then I’m almost always disappointed when I read them, or half read them. This, people, this is different.

A series of essays, of around three or four pages each, by writers. Some famous, some less so. Each highlights a piece of writing that changed them and inspires their work. Many have that piece pinned above their desks. I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, by how much of it is poetry.

Stephen King writes in great detail about how he gets to his opening lines and why they matter so much. Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Khaled Hosseini, David Mitchell and more, are all in there with their own and their muses’ genius. And Jim Crace’s essay, of course there aren’t enough words to fawn over it in this newspaper, let alone this review.

But in a lot of cases, it’s the essays by authors I don’t know, that have given me the most pleasure and pause. Forgive my ignorance, maybe I should have heard of Billy Collins, who writes about W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and how memorizing it saved his life.

Deathly claustrophobic and needing an MRI, he was strapped into the hellishly tight metal tube for forty-five minutes. He found himself repeating the poem over and over. Turning the words around, continuing his life’s work of understanding them, being distracted by the exercise and soothed by the rhythm, until his hell was over. As a literature prof, he now makes all his students memorise a favourite poem. He claims they hate it at the time, but they thank him later in life, during root canal, or a sermon.

Is it weird to review a book you haven’t finished reading yet? I’m on page 201 of 330. But if I waited to finish it, I’d never get the review out. Because if you love words, this is a book you never finish reading. You go slowly, holding the end at bay. And when you sadly eventually get there, you go back, and find essays you weren’t paying full attention to the first time. Or reread an old favourite and find ten new things you missed. Or, and here’s a whole new rabbit hole, start at the beginning and read all the writers’ muses.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *