Reading Life

Reading Life will be published by Negative Capability Press in 2017/18. Review comment will be added once the book is published. The following quote refers to the collection's title essay, originally published in the Southwest Review (Vol.96 no.4 [2011], pp.471-491):

"Here is an essay to be read and read, to be pondered for its dazzling originality, and studied for its graceful style. Arthur considers George Steiner, Alberto Manguel, Walter Ong, Sven Birkerts, and other well-known scholars and critics, and he cites such writers as Chesterton, Borges, and Les Murray; but his principal example is J.A. Baker's Peregrine. This brilliantly original and prize-worthy essay reveals the joys of reading as we 'navigate a way through the mysterious transience of our existence' — 'the very life of life' and 'the secret world' of that life. Arthur not only introduces us to Baker but to the author himself — Chris Arthur — the maker and shaper of five books of essays. Read him."

George Core, Editor, Sewanee Review, vol.CXX, no.4 (Fall 2012), p.lxxxvii

Reading Life is the sixth collection of Chris Arthur's thought-provoking creative nonfiction. It contains a short introduction followed by a selection of essays written in his trademark style. Each of these lyrically philosophical prose meditations starts from some ordinary object or event, but soon leads readers far beyond it. John Muir famously said that "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." The essays in Reading Life are reminders of that incredible hitching; they explore connections. As in the previous books, this is writing that reveals the extraordinary dimensions in what seems ordinary. A focus on fragments is particularly evident in this new collection. In the opening pages, Arthur suggests that "Fragments are interesting precisely because of where they might fit in", because "one thing always connects to another". He presents his essays as "explorations of the mystery of discreteness and continuity, of the part and the whole, the one and the other — and how they fit together". They "trace out how things are linked and conjoined in the maze of being". The constituent pieces in Reading Life — fragments themselves — offer a kind of intimate cartography of the apparently separate bits and pieces that fall upon our attention. In tracing out "the lines of connection's isobars crisscrossing the weather of each moment", they suggest new ways of reading our experience.

The book's epigraph — taken from Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading — emphasizes its main theme:

We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.

Reading is sometimes meant in the narrow/literal sense of reading a book. Thus "When a Dog Barks Late at Night and then Retires Again to Bed" is focused on Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds, particularly the experience of reading it at two very different moments in a life. "When the Time Comes to Leave Them" takes Montaigne's essay "On Solitude" as its point of departure. "Coincidences, Graces, Gifts: Seamus Heaney a Personal Turas" looks at the impact of Seamus Heaney's poetry, particularly the role it played for someone growing up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

More often, though, "reading" is meant in the broader/metaphorical sense of reading the objects and events around us. Thus "Priests" considers some of the wider resonances of meaning that come from throwing a wartime Beretta automatic pistol into a lake; "Tracks" looks at how much can be suggested by footprints left in snow; "Scrimshaw" examines the difficulty of catching the significance of the material things around us, using a whale's tooth as an example; and "Memory Sticks" offers a kind of narrative meditation that unravels some of the history and connections implicit in three old walking sticks.

Common to all the essays is a search for the meanings that lie behind/beyond the superficial readings of ordinary discourse.

"Reading Life" — the book's title essay — brings together these two fundamental threads of reading books and reading the world around us. It offers an exploration of what's involved when we read, taking as its point of departure three readers, their situations, and their engagement with particular books.

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Review comment on Reading Life will be added once the book is published.

"Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought — but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read."

Paul Graham

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Contents

  • Introduction
  • Footnotes Reading my daughter's feet
  • Breath Reading an entry from the Goncourt brothers' Journal
  • Fuchsia Reading a patch of fallen blossom
  • When a Dog Barks Late at Night and Then Retires Again to Bed Reading Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds
  • Priests Reading fishing and desecration
  • When the Time Comes to Leave Them Reading Montaigne
  • Tracks Reading footprints in the snow
  • Sonatina for Oboe and Bayonet Reading All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Describing a Thought-Path Reading a path along which I cycle nearly every day
  • Containing Agostino Reading a copy of Alberto Moravia's Novella
  • Scrimshaw Reading a whale's tooth
  • "Coincidences, Graces, Gifts" Reading Seamus Heaney
  • Memory Sticks Reading three old walking sticks
  • Reading Life Reading J.A. Baker's The Peregrine
  • Afterword Reading Essays
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

"When a Dog Barks Late at Night and then Retires Again to Bed" explores the experience of reading Flann O'Brien's great novel At Swim-Two-Birds in 1974, and rereading it several decades later. The essay includes this paragraph: "It's hard to measure the influence reading has on a life, let alone calculate the effect of any single book. Some titles carry so little in the waters of their text that the words just wash over us and vanish, leaving no discernible trace. Others are more like boulder-loaded waves, a turmoil of water and sediment pounding on our shores. They feel as if they leave us marked by the storm of their passage. But do we really understand what happens when a book touches us (or when it fails to)? Can reading rewire the psyche, leave an impression that's indelible, or is it no more than something of the moment, its impact evaporating as soon as we disengage the reading eye?"

Fuschia

Beside one of Leonardo da Vinci's famous anatomical drawings there's a comment written in the artist's hand: "How could you describe this heart in words without filling a whole book?" "Fuchsia" hints at how a description of fuchsia blossom can take on similar dimensions when it's closely attended to and the memories, connections and associations implicit in it are teased out.

A whale's tooth

This whale's tooth provides the pivot around which "Scrimshaw" weaves a meditation. "Looked at in one way, the tooth is just a remnant from childhood, an eccentric curio of little value to anyone but me. Looked at in another way, it feels almost like a relic, something made near numinous by the wonders it's festooned with. Like the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and their famous Temple of the Tooth, built to house what's said to be one of the Buddha's incisors, perhaps this essay is my way of enshrining the whale's tooth, placing it in the verbal equivalent of a jewel-studded reliquary."

The Peregrine by J A Baker

The title essay in Reading Life makes substantial reference to J.A. Baker's account of watching Peregrine Falcons over a ten year period. Arthur describes Baker's prose as "writing that binds us to life's jugular; its proximity to the pulse of being is sometimes startling, laced with a sense of naked immediacy."