"Looking for Something to Read" by Helen Garner

In 1999 Helen Garner gave an address at the Age Book of the Year Awards ceremony. This essay was subsequently printed in "The Age", and later in Peter Craven's anthology, The Best Australian Essays 1999. The title of the essay is "Looking for Something to Read". A concept that all readers can relate to.

I've been asking around: I knew I couldn't be the only person in the world who's capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I've found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don't remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the fact of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry.

Garner goes on to lament this loss of memory, to bemoan the fact that, as adults, we don't read as we did when children: savouring, relishing, devouring the books. I'm seeing this with my own children. My 12-year-old daughter powers through a book a day and is always on the look-out for something to read. My five-year-old is starting to read by himself and demands a new book be read to him each night. Their appetites are overwhelming at times, both for my wife and I, and for the local libraries.

My father was a big fan of Frank Herbert's sf classic Dune when it came out in the sixties, and, in the mid-seventies when he saw me with the book, said that he envied me the opportunity of reading it for the first time. He felt it was an experience he couldn't go back to.

My father's feelings would seem to contradict Garner's earlier assertion that novels become fuzzy the nano-second after completion. And that would be the case if the extra ingredients of time and experience are ignored. My children devour books and remember them because the bucket of their reading lives is still practically empty: anything new that is tipped in can easily be differentiated from those already floating in the depths. As time goes on and the list of books read starts to reach the hundreds and thousands, the fine details of the books start to fade into each other, colliding and interacting, until it is almost impossible to tell one from the other. In her essay, Garner acknowledges this, listing a number of scenes from books that come immediately to mind; the scene appearing vivid and life-like, the author and title lost in the mist.

Every now and then a sentence that seems vaguely familiar flashes past my eye - was that something about all happy families all being the same? A soldier lying face-down on the field after the battle of Waterloo with a bullet though his heart? A bloke with a daughter on a gumtree plantation? A cloud of torn-up paper scraps being flung out of a closed carriage by a woman's languid hand? Some hippies eating bacon for breakfast every morning of their lives? Now where the hell did I read that?
I don't find this a problem; at least not a major one. It's been happening to me for years. It provides for some opportunities I had thought lost, namely the chance to re-read with an almost blank slate. I can go back to The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles in full knowledge that I remember next to nothing about the novel's twists and turns, its little post-modern tricks, and its Victorian setting and plot, yet being fully aware that the last two or three times I read it I found something new, and which re-inforced its standing as my all-time favourite. I won't be reading it for the first time but it will be near enough for this tired old reader as to make no nevermind. I look forward to it. The essential thing here is that I did enjoy it when I read the book last time. All the fine details might be lost or blurry, but that feeling still remains, and if I use that as my direction-finder I should be all right.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 23, 2005 10:10 AM.

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