So often when I pick up a book, I expect to finish it having learnt something. I anticipate starting at the beginning of a story, following its thread and eventually saying goodbye. Is this a Western idea? Is it the majority? There is a tendency to want a book to be more than ink and paper. Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars becomes obsessed with the idea that the characters in her favourite novel would have gone on to live their lives after the final page.
What if we don’t think of books and stories in this way? Or, more to the point, how do we read books that don’t follow this pattern? Last month I read Thousand Cranes by a Japanese writer called Yasunari Kawabata. Reading it made me realise the expectations I have about reading, because the story didn’t conform to them. Not in a crazy Ulysses way, I might add, just in an unsettling, slightly dissatisfying way. The lack of satisfaction wasn’t the book’s fault either – it just wasn’t written to be read the way I read. People collided and parted, formed relationships, led seemingly normal lives, but there was an air of impenetrability to the text: Personal history wasn’t explained and daily life was shielded by a culture so different to my own that I needed an interpreter.
Difficult reading, it seems, is not only composed of long, old, European texts. A challenging book (and Thousand Cranes is only a hundred or so pages) for me, turned out to be something that asked more questions than it answered. So I read a few books that aren’t Classics – teen fiction and more modern books. Side note: If you find yourself even a little bit tempted to read Heft by Liz Moore then do it, because it is excellent. Don’t, however, read Skios by Michael Frayn because it doesn’t deliver the Wodehouse-ian capers it promises.
This afternoon, huddled under a blanket and only occasionally braving to stretch a slippered foot into a beam of sunlight, I read Cloud Atlas thoughtfully, eagerly, and not pressured by its unconventional structure. This book is so clever, so inspiring, a real humanist feat of joy: The word and its history is huge, whereas people are small but never insignificant.
Here is one of my favourite parts:
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.
Perhaps if I hadn’t started reading thoughtfully I would have missed out.
I’ll come back to you, classics list, I’m just coming back the long way round.