Writing and Reading
Alan Cheuse
 
 


M
y life is filled with books, my mornings spent writing them, my afternoons spent reading them and then with writing about what I'm reading. But sometimes while in my office I pause in the labor of tearing open packages of new books and new galley proofs and look to see just how high the stack of forthcoming fiction for the next three months has grown. Or I glance over at the over-stuffed shelves to the left of my writing desk at home, or I survey the stack of new books on my bedside table, or the books on the little bench next to the commode in the upstairs bathroom, or on the dining room table, and I face up to what a Sisyphusean labor this business is. And when I wander from aisle to aisle of a great used book store, like the Strand in New York City or Aardvark in San Francisco, or when I scroll down the generous lists of out of print books on a website like Alibris.com., I become even more agitated.

Picking up an old copy of the Atlas of the World I turn pages and pages of maps and find place-names in faraway locations that I will probably never visit--Cochabamba, Medicine Hat, Ulan Bator-- and see cities and countries--Paris, Amsterdam, Malaga, Russia, Japan-- that I once traveled through or lived in for a time that I may never see again.

That's how I feel about books. Dickens, Proust, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, yay, even Melville and Hawthorne, Balzac and Colette. Will I ever travel their way again?

The sight of the ubiquitous tee-shirt adorned with the motto "So Many Books, So Little Time" usually throws me into a deep state of melancholy. I know that it must have a similar effect on all serious readers and writers.

Most writers respond to the resonance of that saying with a terrified sense of resignation. So many books one wants to write and so little time left to write them all. At the beginning of a career, it feels as though at times your ocean to swim in, in the middle, like a ship on course for a specific destination, and near the end, like the eve of a drought on a great cracked plain.

Think of the novelist James Jones, dying from congestive heart failure while struggling desperately (and unsuccessfully) to complete Whistle, the third volume in the trilogy that began with From Here to Eternity and continued with The Thin Red Line. Think of those undersung European novelists like Robert Musil, whose brilliant four-volume Austrian epic The Man Without Qualities was never completed--or the British novelist Richard Hughes whose projected series on the rise of Naziism that began with The Fox in the Attic never got beyond the unfinished second volume, The Wooden Shepherdess.

It may well be that sense of time's winged chariot hurrying near that has impelled the great science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to take on as many collaborators as he has in the past decade. The awareness of impending demise certainly informed "Errand," that marvellous last story of Raymond Carver's about Anton Chekhov's last days.

But if as a writer I am in despair about the finite possibilities for my own work, as a reader I am not quite so easily resigned. As a reader, I have access to the great work of all time, and it thrills me and fills me with a sense of the immortal. The writer holds up one torch, the reader is witness to a sea of flame. The writer leads only one life, the reader lives an infinite number in his or her imagination.

Which is why reading is so important to the writer. Borges once wrote I am not as proud of the books I've written as I am of the books I've read....Writers read to create the books they will never write.