Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading because I’ve rekindled that love. I go through phases with reading, as I guess most of do, usually dependent on how engrossed I am in my own projects. Lately, I’ve started to wonder about those reading cycles because I’ve been thinking more about my ethical responsibility to read as a writer.
About a year ago, my friend, Michael Prior, mentioned to me that he sees reading as part of his work of being a writer. To be honest, I took this as another example of Michael’s overachievement… he’s a hardworking writer who constantly puts a pressure on himself to do better. But then I remembered that before I got distracted with the immediate goal -- finishing my drafts of Pauls and getting it ready for publication -- I was also like that. I was constantly trying to better myself and write a better a story or poem than I had last, something that was more honest to what it means to be human. I’ve also been a firm believer in people needing to read in order to know how to write, that you can’t do one without the other, but somewhere in that, I pushed reading into the bubble of “education” or “research” instead of something that is part of my work.
I don’t like this idea that the only people who read are writers and that if you’re writing, then you’re writing for an audience of writers. But I do think that if we are trying to write good literature, we need to be aware of what’s out there and be constantly thinking about what is working and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to read because we get caught up in the patterns of business -- we go out to our local launches and buy that season’s books, we review those books to get a paycheque coming in or to inch a little higher up on a mythical ladder of Canadian publishing, and then spend all of our time reading, well not bad books, but books that are all coming from the same place from similar writers. Reading a bunch of the same stuff is no way to inspire great literature or even just something different.
Why do we write? Is it so that a bunch of our friends can tell us we’re good? Is it for that moment of seeing your book in a store? Is it to go to a reading and have people lazily drink their beers as you read to them? I think that it’s so easy to get distracted by all this stuff (and I will revisit some of these ideas in a later post) and lose track of what I call The Human Project (not to be confused with the many other The Human Projects… this is the Jess Taylor Human Project). The Human Project contains both reading and writing and why we decide to continue to live instead of ending it all if, like I do, you think most things are meaningless and there is no god who is interested in you.
To me, The Human Project is that we must find a way to understand each other and to be understood. I do not want to live in a world of categories and of alienation. If this is our purpose, this mutual understanding, then it makes sense that we’ll be trying to write the most honest work, something that is truthful and aware of the complexities behind human nature. As writers, this means presenting the ugly, the stuff that makes our stomach turn, as well as the exalting, happiness, or joy. It means that we have to accept failure, that maybe there isn’t true self-discovery for characters or an identity or moral codes, that things aren’t always easy to tease out.
This is also a way to live. To live with openness and acceptance of other people, to listen. To be accepting of flaws, to understand why they are this way. To look at the root cause and to understand when the root causes are muddy and unclear. Why do we live in such an imperfect world? Why do people hurt each other? Why is there violence? Why do random bad things happen? Why do people deserve pain or love or any form of happiness?
These questions never get answered, but as writers and people, we have to try to get closer. Reading also presents a way to approach this project: through reading we get a glimpse into the world of someone else. We both get a glimpse into the world of the writer and into the world of the characters, and depending on how different the writer is from their characters, this glimpse can provide us with so many insights into what it means to be human, to understanding something different than ourselves. This builds tolerance, yes, but it also gives us a chance to change things, to try to change things through our responses to what we read, either by living a more honourable life or through our responses in art or in our work (which doesn’t have to just be artistic work, it could be anything. Maybe it will be an accountant who will change the way the world is run).
If we see The Human Project as something we need to keep in mind while reading, it is then obvious that we need to be reading from as wide a range of perspectives as possible. We talk a lot about reading books from people of different races and cultures as a way to correct one of the symptoms of racism -- underrepresentation of people from multiple ethnicities in our art world -- but racism and any form of inequality is actually a symptom of our failures as human beings, that we have failed to understand people who are different from each other are also human beings. By reading with The Human Project in mind, we can start to address this at its fundamental level.
We should be reading books from all over the world. As someone who writes in English and speaks English as my first language, I experience one of the sorrows that many writers and readers in North America with English as their first language do, I am confined to one language. Somewhere along the line, my grade 11 French elective didn’t stick and although I dream of speaking and reading in multiple languages, I can tell from my gaps of understanding even in my native tongue that I will never achieve this. Many people in different countries and even people living in North America speak multiple languages and balance different grammatical structures, vocabularies, and even characters in their minds. So many different ways to express themselves! Many people can pick up a book that was written in another language and read it as easily as it was English. But writers who are writing in English as a first and only language should not discount books that were not written in English. We should be reading books in translation.
I think books in translation get a bad rap because people are used to translators who aren’t quite up to the challenge of capturing the magic of another language, especially by a challenging writer. But I first fell in love with Roberto Bolano through the translation of Natasha Wimmer, Cesar Aira through Chris Andrews who has also translated a Bolano or two. When you start to read books in translation, I think you don’t only discover an amazing writer from another culture, you also discover favourite translators and develop an admiration for these people who have skills that I will never have.
We have a long history of translation here in Canada too, and those that are avid supporters of small press can read many French-Canadian books in translation. Biblioasis had one of their books in translation nominated for the Giller this year, and Coach House has been celebrated for their translations by Rhonda Mullins, in particular And The Birds Rained Down by Joceyline Saucier, which won CBC’s Canada Reads in 2015. Every year publishers from the English and French literary worlds in Canada gather at the Translation Rights Fair in Montreal. And small press publishers don’t just stick to translations from within Canada. BookThug, for instance, began with publishing Danish books in translation and makes sure to still publish one Danish book a season. They also published a Catalan poet for this year’s IFOA.
On a book list discussing The Door by Magda Szabo, which I’m currently reading as my on-transit book, the staffer (the post has since been modified) mentioned that they like to pick books in translation to read since they are almost always excellent. This is because they see it as going through another stage of filter, only the best books get translated into other languages. Whether or not you agree with this, I know I get something special out of reading books in translation. My world expands, and keeps growing.
In my next post, I will outline an ambitious reading program based on the children’s reading tracking game Read Around the World. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, it’s a way to track kids’ reading progress. Every time they read a book, you tell them they are visiting a new country and they get prizes like candy or pencils once they visit a certain number. When they read all the way “around the world”, you give them a bigger prize -- a book! It’s a sneaky way to trick kids into reading, and I loved as a kid since I was obsessed with books. My reading program for adults will be very very hard to complete. You’ll really have to earn that book prize*!
*Jess Taylor is not required to award any readers with any book prizes upon completion of the reading program no matter how difficult and completely far-fetched completion of the program is.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto, Ontario. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, This Magazine, The National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine, and offSIDE Zine. Her pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone, was released by Picture Window Press in the spring of 2014. In October 2014, Anstruther Press released her first full-length chapbook, Never Stop. Recently, she was named “one of the best alt- lit reads coming out of Canada” by Dazed and Confused Magazine. She also received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.” Pauls is her first book (BookThug). Connect with Taylor at www.jesstaywriter.com, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jesstaywriter), on Twitter @jesstaylorwriter, or on Tumblr (www.jesstaywriter.tumblr.com).