Wednesday, December 12, 2007


by Stefano Donati

A friend recently told me he never reads a book twice. As an English teacher, he quickly amended his statement by saying “Except for the books I use in my courses.” Still, the comment surprised me. I’ve completed several novels three to five times apiece, and I’m a much slower reader than he is. He appreciates fine writing and a good plot. He laments infelicities of language and two-dimensional characters. Yet once he finishes the last page, he doesn’t return to the first. Not a year later, not ten years. I certainly don’t fault him, any more than he would fault me for breaking apart story after story and putting each one together again. We’re good friends. But he reads as a reader, and I read as a writer.

My approach has its drawbacks. There are countless fine books in the world, and the hours I spend on rereading can never be used to discover a new book that might have become a treasured favorite. Amid a great novel, I can respond in two ways: by planning to seek out another book by the writer, or by keeping mental notes in the margins, tracking the tossing away and retrieval of plot threads, charting why a full page of description somehow heightens my interest. If I seek out the other book, my esteem for the writer might soar: possibly he or she has produced two great works, or three or four, using disparate themes or settings. And by exploring them, I could --as a human, if not as a writer-- learn far more than by dissecting the first book over and over.

Another virtue of reading as a reader, and not as a writer? The chance to slip fully into the created world. Certainly I miss the excitement I felt when first discovering fiction. Deep into my teens I could still get swept up in a plot without deconstructing it, marvel at a wonderful turn of phrase but not envy it.

And yet...this week I reread one of the most splendid of a certain novelist’s many splendid works (yes, I do manage to read multiple works by multiple writers. Like anyone else in this field, I read all that I can; it just doesn’t come as easily). In the book, Sweet Women Lie by Loren Estleman, a detective must inform a young woman of her boyfriend’s murder. The detective is pretty sure the woman played no part in the crime, but as a pro, he must balance his condolences with a twinge of suspicion. Standard fare on the surface, yet Estleman expertly conveys the hero’s mix of black humor, bluntness, compassion, and self-loathing. You can sense this character keeping his emotions at bay; you can also sense those emotions overwhelming him. I must have dissected that scene twenty times, as I have done with other scenes in other novels. Other writers do the same – even when caught up in the story. We feel our readerly emotions overwhelm us, yet we also keep them at bay. Because we have to. Like it or not, we must read from a distance.

At least, that’s my take.

©2007 Stefano Donati
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