Written as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, September 28-30, 2007
In The Reading Life: Books for the Ages, Sven Birkerts has arrived at the vantage from which he’s seemed destined to write all his literary life: the remote and elevated outpost of retrospection. Linking his thirty years as a cynosure of the reading life to the eleven books that defined that charted course, Birkerts matches up his past and present intellectual selves through the rereading of his touchstone texts, The Catcher in the
Lifelong readers will likely relate to many of the common formative experiences recreated in The Reading Life. Birkerts begins, for example, by flashing back to the narcotic sway Holden Caulfield held over his fourteen-year-old self: the identification with “the comic pathos,” “that almost killing despair” of adolescence, and the eventual, mature revelation that what once passed pejoratively for Caulfieldian alienation was, in reality, nothing more—and nothing less—than “the essential impulse toward privacy.” Jumping ahead, as he does deftly throughout the collection, Birkerts feels the book’s potency after he learns of his preteen daughter’s affinity for it. The conclusion of The Catcher in the Rye clicks into its rightful place: fixed as a still-life of disaffection, Caulfield functions—tragically—as every generation’s object lesson in “the disappointments of life to come.”
Not all characters go so gently into their set site. The most diverting characters in this pantheon inspire more wrestling on the critic’s part; they provoke what Birkerts calls the “disputatious inner swing [that] defines engaged reading.” (The Reading Life is crowded with the intricate fight-dance of such relations—with Binx Bolling, Lily Briscoe, Rupert Birkin, and others—and as such, the collection, of course, defies neat abridgment here.) The major characters of this latter category do not so much reappear after prolonged absence from Birkerts’s reading list, but exhibit a sustained, lifelong entanglement in the critic’s active intellectual life.
Emma Bovary is a case in point. Birkerts, a committed child of the counterculture, had long resisted the centrality of the classics until fate holed him up on an isolated
Birkerts traces the subsequent strands of his career spent growing into a consciousness of Flaubert’s craft, the rich pretext, text, and subtext that together form Bovary’s romantic folly. Her “ravenous wanting,” it becomes clear, are meant to inspire neither judgment nor sympathy alone, but both at once, resulting in a tormented, sorrowful, and “complicated self-division” on the reader’s part. Birkerts shows time and again, as he does with his immense deference to Flaubert’s characters, that it is not with false hope for strict moral truth that one might usefully tend to a book, but for something subtler, more graceful, less immediately evident, for the shifts in a character’s actions or outlook that invisibly slip the knots of our convictions, leaving us—to our great surprise—somehow reconfigured after the book has ended. Birkerts’s work stands as a wild proof that the literary work’s constancy offers the best measure of the reader’s evolution.
Birkerts reports, after he finally finished The Ambassadors, having reveled in the rapture of “literary endorphins.” This athletic metaphor intimates that the reading life must be accorded the same focus—no TV, no instant messaging, no iTunes in the background—given to any other disciplined endeavor. Birkerts considers it “reading as a way of inviting [ourselves] to be overtaken.” And though critics may come to literature for various reasons—vanity, hunger, blood sport, haven—one imagines Birkerts remains in the game “for the solace of literature mattering.” What matters, what makes the difference, and what, after having gone 516 pages with Strether through the long haul of The Ambassadors, will tell each reader whether she’s up for doing it all over again, is taking the right, the only, position one can honestly take in relation to the work: one’s own.