Saturday, January 16, 2010

Declan Kiberd on the Lure of Books: (Re)reading with Eileen Battersby

Everyone should have at least one friend who vigorously resists contemporary modes of communication, yet remains connected in profound and genuine ways. For me, that friend is Declan Kiberd, professor of English at University College Dublin. He doesn't have email, certainly doesn't twitter, and (according to his daughter Amy) "will NEVER submit to a mobile!" Phone, that is. I think he writes his many books in a longhand scrawl, covering legal pads with carefully formulated observations. If you write him a letter, and send it by post, he just might write back – if you have something meaningful to say. The entire world seems to interest him.

("You won't find him surfing the Internet," says Amy. "He calls it a 'download.'")

I wrote about Declan last March 18th, after the amusing experience of finding a facebook page dedicated to a Declan Kiberd Appreciation Society. Needless to say, he does not do facebook. (Here's a post about Kiberd at Anderson Brown's Literary Blog, a link picked up at that facebook page.) But he does write sometimes for The Irish Times, and today this review came my way, via Serial Susan, via Richard Rose, via baseball writer Ann Bauleke (author of "The Puckett Principle").

In this review, Kiberd looks at Second Readings 52: From Beckett to Black Beauty by Eileen Battersby (Liberties Press). A voracious and enthusiastic reader, Battersby looks back at 52 books she first encountered at a younger age. Kiberd writes:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS are lasting, but second readings can transform a person from one imprisoned by an experience to one who can contain and even transcend it. That is a central intuition of psychoanalysis. Revisiting a past moment, at which a life may have got snagged, allows a person to live more fully through the missed elements of that moment and then to move on.

There is another kind of second reading too, which allows us to experience all over again a feeling of unqualified pleasure. If every book is in some way a second reading of a life, then the great novels of the world capture that life most abundantly.

A piece of music can suddenly restore for us the lost world in which we first encountered it, and so also can a book. But to that recaptured experience is added a deeper consciousness of its meaning over time, along with a tender sense of the innocence of our initial responses.

Of nothing may this be more true than of books. CS Lewis once said that a story worth reading at the age of 10 will also be worth rereading at the age of 50. In that later venture, it is our prior selves, as well as the text, that we reread. And what we find is how deeply, at all stages, it has been reading us.

The final thought is this one:

What is even more admirable is that, unlike so many people who read nowadays solely for exam courses or for other practical purposes, she reads for pleasure – in story, in shaped sentences, in the magic of a word or an image. It’s more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin wondered whether the children of the future would enjoy “the exacting silence of a book”. Since then a whole generation has been turned outward, away from interior exploration, by iPods, Playstations and MTV. Some can’t even contemplate writing an essay without the sound of music or the flicker of images in the background. There is something faintly scandalous and wonderfully anachronistic about Ms Battersby’s pursuit of literary pleasure in a culture too often characterised by a search for mere sensations.

I'm passing this along like a lucky chain letter: Read this review and you might just be inspired to (re)read 2 to 52 books in the next year: that could certainly change your life. Connect with story the old-fashioned way, with that hand held device once known as a book.


alfottos said...

I am kind of surprised that no comments have been posted, as the path to enlightenment and fullfillment of enjoying the printed word, may not of caught the viewer's eye! My hats of to you.

elena said...

Thanks..yes, I'd love to see a flock of other Declan devotees!