A change in habit

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

I have recently acquired two new habits in the way I read. The first concerns how I consume prose. It used to be the case that I would, on finishing a book by one author, make sure to shift to one by a very different author. e.g. from E.M. Forster to Henry Miller (or vice versa). If there was anything as developed as a reason for this (which I doubt) it was to avoid being overly influenced by a particular voice.

My new approach is to do the opposite, to read as much by one particular author as is ‘possible’ (which here depends on how many books by a particular author I have, and if it seems worthwhile to try and do so- answers in the negative include Ian McEwan, John Fowles and Herman Hesse). I suppose I began doing this with Faulkner, partly because the first 5 or 6 were so extraordinary, partly because I wanted to see if there was anything he couldn’t do. The benefits of this are that one gets to watch a writer’s style evolve (in some cases, degenerate into mannerism) and that one can identify central preoccupations (or, to put it less grandly, whether he or she is repeating themselves in an increasingly tired manner e.g. Paul Auster). Currently, I am in a Henry James phase, having read The Europeans (very slight), wandered into Colm Toibin’s The Master, then resumed with The Spoils of Poynton. This is from The Master.

Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone. Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency. He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness. He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.

The second shift concerns poetry, and is, I now realise, the opposite. Where once I would try (and always fail, except with Raymond Carver) to read a poet’s Collected Works, now I either read a single volume, or start with the latest work. Often this latter work seems best, and one does not thus get bogged down in juvenalia or false stylistic turnings. I’m not sure if this is due to the nature of poetry (as opposed- if it is- to prose) or just my own capacity for enjoying it (five or six poems at a time is usually sufficient).

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