‘Books bring us into being’: how writing about reading became an inspiring literary genre of its own

·13 min read

Books throw us into the world as much as they provide respite from it. Now that summer is here, I am reminded of the particular pleasure of lying reading on the grass. It’s a memory of adolescence, filled with sensuality: toes curled on to green softness; the sun, pulsing hot on bare legs; the book – Jane Eyre, or The God of Small Things perhaps – held aloft to keep glare off the face. But it also has an ethical charge. I was reading, as so many young women have read, to find out how to be a strong woman in an oppressive world, how to channel anger and let it take me outwards, away from the pettiness of family squabbles; how to allow the body’s needs and wants to play out without shame.

Think of Jane Eyre herself. The novel begins with Jane poring over Thomas Bewick’s The History of British Birds, reading her way to the bleak shores of Lapland and Siberia and into centuries of winters, “happy at least in my way”, glad to be able to imaginatively escape the oppression of the present, where her aunt and cousin torment her. When her cousin John comes upon her and chides her for reading the family’s books (“They are mine”), she gains confidence from having read about the Romans to pit her spirit against his: “You are like a murderer–you are like a slave-driver–you are like the Roman emperors!!”

Jane becomes the archetype for so many other restless young women, reading their way out of constrictive worlds. How many of us have longed to utter her speeches, like this one to her cruel aunt: “How dare I, Mrs Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth.” So often the act of reading has a special intensity for young women. It’s part of the development of a self with a bodily life.

Martha Quest, the eponymous heroine of Doris Lessing’s coming-of-age novel, “read the same books over and over again, in between intervals of distracted daydreaming, in a trance of recognition, and in always the same place, under the big tree that was her refuge, through which the heat pumped like a narcotic”. Martha eats while she reads, ingesting oranges and words. Lila and Lenù, in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, get hold of a copy of Little Women and meet in the courtyard to “read it, either silently, one next to the other, or aloud”, so many times “that the book became tattered and sweat-stained”.

I have been thinking in recent years about how to recapture the intensity of that early reading. So often the university students I teach complain that studying English has taken the pleasure out of reading; that years of spotting similes and metaphors and lexical fields have stopped them caring about characters or being affected by the language they are parsing. It’s not only pleasure that is lost here, it’s also urgency – the hope that reading can help us navigate a world full of conflict and suppression and make us want to change it.

Was reading Doris Lessing somehow responsible for the end of my marriage?

My response has been to try to recapture that intensity in my adult reading: to allow myself to read out of need; to focus exclusively at times on the work of one writer; to argue with dead authors who seem sometimes more alive to me than many of my friends. In 2015 I began a two year stint of reading Doris Lessing. I’d just had a miscarriage; I was becoming unhappy in my marriage; I was going to too many weddings and was disturbed by the happy-ever-after they implied. I was coming to realise that the model I’d been sold in which achievement was followed by reward had been false and Lessing seemed to me an unexpectedly vital guide as I entered this new, middle phase of life and came to accept the place of failure and disappointment.

Her 1962 era-defining novel The Golden Notebook is about a woman trying to reconcile her political and personal lives. It’s a novel written in many voices (a collage of notebooks created to describe different aspects of the heroine’s life), including everything from dreams to newspaper stories to psychoanalytic sessions to drafts of fiction. With its many voices and styles, it spoke to me intellectually, but also as a woman at that time in my life. It allowed me to take seriously boredom, irritation and alienation as part of my imaginative life and – at a moment when I felt constricted in my marriage and the social restrictions of my world – it set expectations of freedom. “I am interested only in stretching myself,” Lessing’s narrator writes, “in living as fully as I can.” What would it be like to live like that, I asked myself, and I wrote a book about Lessing’s various ideas of sexual, political, psychoanalytic and ecological freedom.

Those years were exhilarating and disturbing. I still don’t know if Lessing was somehow responsible for the end of my marriage. She certainly made me more honest with myself and with others. But it was a while, after that, before I wanted to write about a writer again.

I’d been contracted to write about DH Lawrence during a brief period of passion for him at 30, but had turned away from him as I became more immersed in feminist writing, finding myself drawn to reading women. Since then I’d been teaching Lawrence, and found my students’ reluctant passion for his female characters inspiring. Now it was time to write my book, and I discovered that what I had learned about myself as a reader through the Lessing book suggested new ways of braiding my academic identity with my allegiance to readerly pleasure and self-discovery. I began at the beginning – with his novel The White Peacock, and its celebration of the English countryside in spring. I discovered that the urgency of his writing about animals and nature spoke directly to our own times. And then Covid rushed in, and I found myself hastily renting out my London flat and moving with my children to the Oxfordshire countryside to be nearer to my partner and to have a garden.

Suddenly, I was immersed in landscapes uncannily similar to the ones Lawrence described so well. Reading my way through Lawrence’s novels, essays, letters and poems in the hours that were available amid lockdown childcare, I found that everything around me seemed to come from a Lawrence novel: our urban cat catching a mouse for the first time, the birds singing outside my window (into the future, he’d have said). Lawrence’s combinations of lush rapture and fraught intellectual acumen articulated the possibilities of that moment. It became clear that this again was going to be a book that brought me into close dialogue with another author.

“Certain words are alive, active living,” the narrator says in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, “in fact it feels as if they are being written as you read them.” Published in 2021, Checkout 19 is a novel, but it also belongs to a strand of writing that has flourished over the past few years, sometimes known as “bibliomemoir”, in which authors chart their lives through books. It’s a piece of writing about adolescent reading that becomes a book about the role of reading in making a self and a life.

The novel homes in on adolescence precisely because reading at that age is so ardent. Bennett is obsessed with reading as a bodily act; she’s fascinated by misreading, by daydreaming while reading, by what is remembered and what forgotten, by the way that our “fairly fervid” desire to turn the pages of a book leads us to skim over the final sentences on a page. “For books are not absolutely dead things,” she quotes Milton as writing, “but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” Books reveal the world to readers, but they also change readers and change the world around them. We are creating the text we read, she says. “And isn’t the opposite true too – that the pages you read bring you to life? Turning the pages, turning the pages. Yes, that is how I have gone on living. Living and dying and living and dying, left page, right page, and on it goes.”

Books bring us into being, living and dying on the pages. I suppose I knew that as a teenager, lying on the grass in the park, as Jane Eyre knows it and as Lila and Lenù do. The more explicitly nonfictional bibliomemoirs published in the last decade have tested the limits of this process. Samantha Ellis excavates childhood and adolescence in How to Be a Heroine, rereading the books that shaped her. In retrospect, she realises that The Little Mermaid helped her grapple with her parents’ fears after emigrating from Iraq: “terrors of displacement and separation and loss”. She sees that she feared womanhood, frightened that when “bold, clever, creative girls” like Anne of Green Gables and Jo March become women, they become less themselves.

What if other people’s pages are so powerful that they take over, subsuming our own voice?

In her 2019 book, The Lost Properties of Love, Sophie Ratcliffe reads Anna Karenina while wondering whether or not to have an affair. “That’s what books do. They change lives,” she writes, making us aware how hazardous reading can be while she thinks about how an affair is “an attempt to live twice … it exists beyond a door you think nobody else has noticed”. Books determine life decisions too in Nell Stevens’s 2019 book Mrs Gaskell and Me. Stevens was doing her PhD on Victorian literature when she found herself in daily dialogue with Elizabeth Gaskell, scouring between the lines of Gaskell’s letters and fiction for glimpses of her secret desire for a not‑quite lover at the same time as Stevens herself embarked on and then mourned her own love affair. Eventually – heavily tranquilised, having just had an ovary removed – she finds herself in conversation with the ghost of her heroine, asking her: “Should I just use a sperm donor, and have a baby, alone?”

New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead was older and less ingenuous when she began writing My Life in Middlemarch. She had loved Middlemarch in adolescence because it helped her ask “how on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings”. In middle age, she found that this book that is so good on middleness – on paths not taken and disappointment – spoke to her with almost troubling directness. Mead had recently become a step-parent and found herself drawn to George Eliot’s experiences as a stepmother in middle age, seeing this as part of the novel’s “tensile strength”. She found now that reading was not the form of escapism she had once thought it, but the place where “one finds oneself”: “There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them.”

What if other people’s pages are so powerful that they take over, subsuming our own voice? This question preoccupies journalist Nilanjana Roy in her 2016 essay collection The Girl Who Ate Books. Roy associates reading with eating, as Lessing did, and as Virginia Woolf did (in On Being Ill Woolf talks about words giving out a scent and distilling a flavour, coming to us “sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils”). She interviews various fellow Indian writers accused of plagiarism and then becomes preoccupied by it herself. “On one occasion, I read my column in print, chilled by the conviction that I had come across those paragraphs before,” she writes, only to discover that she has in fact plagiarised herself.

In worrying about plagiarism, Roy hints at the dangers of reading too intensely. The best bibliomemoirs bring an ambivalence to their readerly need. It may be neither healthy nor sane to grow up thinking you are Jane Eyre, or to almost have a love affair because you are urged on by Anna Karenina, or, in my own case, to pay more heed to the constriction in my marriage because of Doris Lessing. Elif Batuman ends her 2011 dextrously wayward bibliomemoir The Possessed by insisting that if she could “start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” But she has said in recent interviews that she’s become more aware since then of how fraught and double-edged it can be for books to suffuse a life. Her recent autobiographical novel Either/Or grapples with her undergraduate reading and finds herself at fault for being lured into too aesthetic a vision of life – captivated by beauty, she loses a sense that she has political agency.

For other female readers and writers, reading itself has been a political act. There is no question of aestheticism in Azar Nafisi’s 2003 Reading Lolita in Tehran, which describes Nafisi’s attempt, after being driven out of the university, to set up a secret, egalitarian community of women, reading together and writing a collective diary of their responses. Discarding their headscarves, they read Lolita, and compare Humbert to the Ayatollah Khomeini: “They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives.”

A particular appeal of Nafisi’s book is that it offers us reading as a collective experience. Similarly, Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards have experimented in a more literal form of collective criticism in their invigorating Letters (2020), which consists of letters between the four while reading the Neapolitan quartet. Selby Wynn Schwartz, meanwhile, is more explicit in setting her narrator up as a kind of chorus in her novel After Sappho, longlisted for the Booker prize, which is a series of vignettes of literary lesbians from Sappho through to 1928.

For me, reading Lawrence has demonstrated a way beyond today’s polarised politics, because he was so prepared to allow contradictory thoughts to coexist, to push every thought to its extremity in order to try it out and then think its opposite. There’s much to be angry about in Lawrence (his forays into gender essentialism and racial hierarchy, his denial of his wife Frieda’s identity as a mother). But I’ve also learned from him to find antagonism productive and I have realised how hard I have found it as a woman to accept anger – my own and other people’s. I think back to Jane Eyre. “How dare I, Mrs Reed? How dare I?” Those cadences shaped my adolescence but it is only now that I have got to the point where I could utter them.

Lara Feigel is the author of Look! We Have Come Through! – Living with DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury).