Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Perhaps reading is my religion

I have already had too many mood swings over this project to count. Sometimes I feel exhilarated by the excitement of participating in something so new, other times rebellious at having to read to a rigid structure. Sometimes I feel privileged to be reading in such learned company, other times resentful that my experience of this book is being filtered through the lens of the project.

I went to take a quick look at Doris Lessing’s biography online today. I realise it’s the first time I’ve really thought about the woman whose novel I’m reading. Mostly, when I’m reading, I’m thinking about the book through the eyes of the six other women in this project. What will they make of this scene? Will someone else comment on this paragraph or will I be the first? Will they disagree with my approach to it?

This is very different to the way I usually read. For me, what is inspiring and magnificent about reading is the sense of communion with one single other human mind. No other artform, I think, is so direct, so unmediated, so simple. There’s no need for lighting, makeup artists, camera operators or directors. There’s no studio or network calling the shots. No orchestra or actors have to interpret the work. I don’t even have to be in the presence of the artist’s personal handiwork. A scattering of printed characters on a page or a screen and I am in the presence of another person’s creation. I worry that this project is interfering with the purity of that communion (and if this sounds religious, that’s probably accurate). I worry that I’ll never be able to read this book without the demands of the project intervening.

But I realise that this, for what it’s worth, is my answer to Harriet’s question “why do we read?” I read because I want to be intensely in the presence of other human minds. Intensely involved in their deep selves, driven by the motor of their thoughts for a time. And it’s true that many books end up not being worth keeping. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth reading. That’s like saying “because only these friends have been with me my whole life, all my other relationships were meaningless.” Some books are like a cocktail party chat, some like a friendship specific to a particular job or city or time of life. Some books are like a long relationship: tremendously meaningful to us for many years and then, suddenly, they are spent.

This is not to say that reading a great book is like being friends with the writer: of course it’s not. But human beings are vast; our minds are larger than we know. No book can contain one millionth, one billionth of a human life. But a great writer puts a sliver of their human-ness into a book and, like God breathing life into clay in Genesis, suddenly it is a little alive. It’s that that I’m looking for: the moment of communion with the novel. It’s that that I’m afraid this project may deprive me of because perhaps it can only happen alone.

Author avatar

Naomi Alderman
on November 22nd, 2008 at 6:36 pm