On page 68 of Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking (2017), I’m felled by a tripwire sentence. Did she mean to leave it there? Will it make other readers stumble? Why, out of all the lines in the book, was it these ones I found particularly arresting?
“Tripwire” may be the wrong word to use. It suggests an indiscriminate device slyly left behind with the intention of tripping anyone who passes. Perhaps it’s more a case of a writer deliberately taking aim and throwing a kind of bolas, so that readers become entangled and fall – a verbal equivalent of those ropes strung with weights that South American vaqueros use to devastating effect.
Whether tripwire, bolas, or some other comparison is chosen, I don’t mean to criticise the sentence. Baume writes beautifully. Rather, I want to emphasise the impact that it had on me; the way it stopped me in my tracks.
This is what Sara Baume says, through the voice of Frankie, her novel’s twenty-something artist protagonist:
Ever since I learned to read, I’ve had a book on the go – one after another – an unbroken chain from Winnie-the-Pooh to Salman Rushdie.
I was immediately taken by the image that this sentence conjured up. I warmed to the idea of someone reading book after book, and in so doing laying down a trail of titles that stretches from the first pages they learned to read to whatever they’re reading now – stepping stones of print, scores of them, placed through the years. Thinking of my own reading life, I could identify with Frankie’s. Like her, I always have a book on the go. But until reading this sentence in Baume’s novel I hadn’t thought of the way in which one reading links to another and another, each one adding to a taproot that runs from childhood to old age, providing a kind of literary connective tissue that percolates through a life, punctuating us with its presence.
Using “chain” to describe this continuous line made by a lifetime’s reading fits the situation in Baume’s novel, because Frankie seems so imprisoned, so shut in. But it isn’t the best word for my purposes. “Chain” carries with it an array of connotations, some of which work well enough: the idea of an anchor chain – something that provides stability, that stops us being swept adrift; the way in which every link in a chain is complete in itself yet also an integral part of a series, each link adding to its reach and strength; the fact that chains can’t easily be broken. But as well as suggesting the positives of strength, stability and durability, and the way in which each separate link contributes to the whole, there are insistent echoes of less welcome things. Chains are used to shackle and enslave; they’re constraints from which we can’t break free.
Though reading likewise carries both positive and negative implications – it can liberate or blinker – when I think about a lifetime’s reading I feel the need to substitute a different word for “chain”. Entitling this essay “A Line Made by Reading” seems at once to avoid the undesirable aspects of “chain” and to acknowledge, via the twinning of its cadence with her title, my indebtedness to Baume and the tripwire-bolas sentence that sparked what I’m writing here.
In fact Baume takes her title from the artist Richard Long. This is how she describes his 1967 composition, A Line Made by Walking: “A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass.” Of Long’s general aesthetic she comments that he “doesn’t like to interfere with the landscape through which he walks … He specializes in barely-there art. Pieces that take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do little damage.” I like the way walking resonates with reading. Just as every step we take continues our lifeline, links our very first step in the world with, eventually, the final one we take, so the lines worn through our inner landscapes by reading connect the first time we deciphered writing’s marks to the last words our eyes will fall upon before they close for ever.
It’s interesting to compare the work of artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, whose sculptures (or performances) are created by walking in landscapes, with the invisible paths we follow through books. Walking along the various word-routes that make up the lines of reading that crisscross our lives, our tread is as invisible, as transient, as barely-there, as a walking artist’s footsteps across whatever physical terrain they’ve chosen to traverse. And yet the impact on us can be as profound as that of any desert or mountain range that Long or Fulton might select. And for all that we leave no obvious residue of ourselves in the reading landscapes we travel through, I’ve sometimes thought when I’m reading old books, those that have seen much wear, that on the gradient of a particular sentence, amidst the foliage of certain words, along the curve of a lyrical description I’ve seen a shadow, caught a glimpse of something that’s made me wonder about the traces of others who have passed this way. Might some hint of their fugitive presence still haunt the unmarked topography of sentences through which my reading eye is moving?
For the public exhibits that reflect the art of their walking, Long and Fulton produce images that are often accompanied by pared-down, austere-sounding text. Thinking of these, I wonder about something similar arising from the reading journeys that I’ve made. For example, imagine a massive canvas, covered with a dense peppering of words in tiny Cyrillic script. Superimposed on them – in bold, in massive font – would be three lines:
One hundred pages
Read every day for half a year
Beginning a journey through Russian literature
Or, written across a panoramic view of mountains, photographed in atmospheric sepia tones:
The flavour of Ulster in the Scottish Highlands
A seven-day meander through seven books
Cadences, cues, connections –
Reading Seamus Heaney in the Cairngorms
High summer, 2016
Or, this time on a blank canvas:
Winter rain on the skylight
Reading Basho in an attic room
Haiku fall like raindrops on the mind
Soon soaked to the skin
Or, this time perhaps superimposed on a close-up photo of a fuchsia flower:
Twenty days reading Mervyn Peake
Seeing no one; no interruptions
Transported to another world
Or, emblazoned across a view of Dublin and the river Liffey:
Fifty thousand words into Ulysses
A blonde hair trapped between pages
Who’s been here before me?
When I think about how “A line made by reading” is marked out invisibly across so many years of my life, I picture it not as something faint and inert like a pencil line. It appears instead as a thick root or umbilicus, a major artery or nerve. I know I could survive biologically without reading – it’s not vital in the way of air or food or water. Yet it seems such an integral part of me, something on which I rely so much, something from which I’ve drawn such sustenance over the years that the metaphors that come to mind are vibrantly organic. Nor do I think of my line of reading as something straight or singular. Yes, it stretches through my chronology in a way that may suggest the uncomplicated singleness that goes with linearity. But looked at closely, the line is made up of multiple fibres that entwine and interweave and separate. Their route is more meandering than ruled. I’m reminded of what anthropologist Tim Ingold says in Lines: A Brief History (2007). In his view, the patterns traced out by our wayfaring lives are far richer with interest, far untidier than anything that can be caught by plotting them as something straight or square or circular. In mapping our reading lives, as with our actual lives, arranging things according to the symmetry of neat patterns is more likely to distort than to catch their true nature.
An observation of Alberto Manguel’s in A History of Reading (1997) provides a helpful reminder of the way in which “a line made by reading” runs not just through each individual’s life but through several millennia in the life of our species. Recounting his visit to Iraq in 1989 to see the ruins of Babylon and the Tower of Babel – which for him, as a Western reader, constitute “the starting-place of every book” – Manguel writes:
Since the earliest vestiges of prehistoric civilization, human society has tried to overcome the obstacles of geography, the finality of death, the erosion of oblivion. With a single act – the incision of a figure on a clay tablet – the first anonymous writer suddenly succeeds in all these seemingly impossible feats.
Looking at the genesis of writing in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago, a genesis that allowed “these seemingly impossible feats” to be performed, Manguel characterises the writer as “a maker of messages, the creator of signs”. To give voice to the meanings that are hidden in these signs “required a magus who would decipher them”.
It is, I think, important to recognise the magus nature of reading, the way in which there’s a near-magical element involved, the conjuring of meaning’s riches out of signs, reawakening sense from sentences in which it may have been laid down centuries ago, in another language, by a hand that was of a different nationality, gender, creed and colour to the reader’s. Words are astonishing containers. We can load all manner of things into them and rely on them to transport these varied cargoes – sometimes enormous, sometimes tiny – from one mind into others. The journeys they make can be modest or epic. Neither time nor distance stops the flow of words. “Magus” also carries hieratic connotations that seem appropriate in that they confer on reading the sense of something almost sacral. Magi are also, of course, bearers of precious, unexpected gifts – and which reader would deny receiving such benison from reading? Beneath the masks of familiarity they usually wear, there’s something truly extraordinary about reading-writing, those conjoined twins we tend to take for granted. In The Gutenberg Elegies (1996) – his profound meditation on the fate of reading in an electronic age – Sven Birkerts provides a useful reminder of their true nature:
Writing is the monumentally complex operation whereby experience, insight and imagination are distilled into language; reading is the equally complex operation that disperses these elements into another person’s life.
Just as the heart’s twinned motions – systole and diastole – are each essential for life to continue, so reading and writing are conjoined in their operation; neither can survive alone. But though we’re as familiar with the pulse of reading-writing as we are with our own heartbeat, how far do we understand the complex operations to which Birkerts draws attention? The distillation and dispersal he points to are what constitute the lines of reading that are laid down from the moment we learn to read until the final sentence we decipher. It’s almost as if our lives are secretly marked with contours and isobars whose swirling filigrees chart our encounters with text and leave upon us markings that, although they are as unique as fingerprints, connect us all to the same commonality of an ancient Mesopotamian beginning. The invention of writing-reading that happened then sutured to the human psyche a network of biblio-nerves. It has massively extended our consciousness.
According to Manguel, “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.” But despite – or because of – its essentialness, reading is something we tend simply to do without giving a great deal of thought to its nature. “So little do we know of what goes on when we read,” as George Craig puts it in a chapter he contributed to Real Voices on Reading (1997), edited by Philip Davis. “What is the true size and real use of a book,” asks the volume’s editor, “What is its relation to the life outside that is itself the book’s very subject-matter?” We are so used to books and reading, they are such an accustomed part of our world, that to suggest there’s anything opaque or mysterious about them, that we need to inquire into what reading involves or what a book is for, can seem contrived – betokening a kind of pretended ignorance or ineptitude; a false naivety about what’s altogether plain. Are the answers to such questions not obvious?
But like much that’s apparently straightforward, there is far more to books and reading than meets the eye, much more uncertainty about them than we might suppose. What impact does a line made by reading have on a life? How deeply is it etched into us? What compass points is it aligned to? What determines the exact mix of its components? Can our reading lines provide more reliable clues about our individuality than the lines marked on our palms? It’s hard to measure the influence that a single book has on us, let alone try to compute the ways in which the reading lines that extend over virtually a whole lifetime may shape us. 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 permanent, or is it no more than something of the moment, its impact evaporating as soon as we disengage the reading eye? Is a line made by a lifetime’s reading laid down indelibly or can it be erased? Is it reinforced or challenged by new readings? How do the lines that a life takes relate to the reading lines it bears within it? Is a line made by reading more likely to fetter or set free the individual on whom it’s drawn?
In Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (1982) Walter Ong claims that “more than any other invention writing has transformed human consciousness”. It is a plausible, if unprovable claim with which I’m minded to agree, but tracing out in any detail the transformations caused by writing-reading (let us not forget the twin) would be formidably difficult. The external memory writing provides, the way in which its linear scaffolding supports and structures particular patterns of thought (and inhibits others), its ability to hold the mind’s nuances intact and transport them over time and distance, between mind and mind, are impressive indeed – but beyond such general features, could we detail point by point the physiognomy of the transformation it has worked upon us? Who can say for sure how the words we read and the lines they lay down upon us ripple through our pools of inwardness, how writing-reading sculpts the intimate caverns of our psyche? Is it possible to map how books affect our thoughts and actions, or to measure their role in the tangible outcomes of human history? What would have been the fate of Homo sapiens if we’d never discovered how to read and write, if those Mesopotamian innovators had never made their magus marks on clay?
Reading is like a kind of raising from the dead, or at least a wakening from deep hibernation. We pass our gaze along a line of print and each sepulchral letter blinks as sense awakens from it; each word-coffin turns into chrysalis as what was packed into it unfurls and hatches, comes to life again. More precisely, something hatches. Whether it was what the writer intended is less certain. As George Steiner puts it – in After Babel (1975) – “no two human beings share an identical associative context”, there are “no facsimiles of sensibility, no twin psyches”. This means that the way in which any word strikes the reading eye varies from individual to individual according to how it percolates through the unique alchemy of their personality and history. Even the same reader reading the same book at two points in their life is unlikely to take from it an identical harvest – as is nicely shown in Anne Fadiman’s Re-Readings (2006) and RS Sugirtharajah’s Caught Reading Again (2009). We hatch the sense of every sentence that we read by gentle brooding at the fire of who we are. This incubation draws its warmth from the inner strata that layer the self’s secret interiorities. As such, it would be simplistic to assume that a writer simply lays down the path that readers follow, their steps obedient to every shift and change intoned by the authorial voice. Reading-writing is far more complicated – far more interesting – than such a vision of puppetry allows.
Of course my talk of raising from the dead or wakening from deep hibernation shouldn’t be taken as indicating that we remember everything we read. On the contrary, vast swathes of what we read are forgotten. The way in which a kind of literary amnesia increasingly overcomes us as we age – to the extent that it feels as if the bulk of what we’ve read has disappeared – is beautifully captured in Billy Collins’s “Forgetfulness.” The first few lines of the poem will surely strike a chord with every reader over thirty:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.
Looking at the line of reading that stretches from the onset of literacy to the present moment of my life, I know that the bulk of the material that marks out this line, whose tread upon my mind incised it with reading’s isobars, has vanished from any kind of conscious recall. I can’t remember the first book I ever read. I can’t remember most of what I’ve read. Does this mean that the line marked out by reading has become faint or completely erased? Are there gaps in it, compromising its claim to be an unbroken thread made up of every book I’ve had on the go from childhood to the present? Whilst it would be nice to be able to remember more, I don’t think the way in which books evaporate like this is a cause for much concern. I believe that however little of it I may be able to remember, the process of reading lays down in some stratum of the psyche a kind of wordy compost that’s emotionally and cognitively beneficial; it encourages certain states of mind, inhibits others. If I’d never read the books I have, I believe I would have been massively impoverished. Indeed it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that I’d have been a different person if I’d not read the particular array of books that comprise the line made by reading in my life (though of course I’ve no way of knowing this for sure).
George Steiner has said something about the texts we memorise that I think also applies to reading in general. He suggests – in Real Presences (1989) – that what we know by heart “becomes an agency in our consciousness, a pacemaker in the growth and vital complication of our identity”. “What is committed to memory,” he says, provides “the ballast of the self.” Steiner’s wonderful phrases catch the way in which literature is something life-changing. Our reading – not just what we memorise – surely acts as “an agency in consciousness”, “a pacemaker in the growth and vital complication of our identity”. Were my life to have what I’ve read excised from it, I’d feel dangerously unballasted.
Perhaps part of the appeal of books lies in the way they simultaneously suggest containment and freedom. On the one hand, a book conveys order and control in the disciplined neatness of all the marshalled lines of print that it contains. Its compact, rectangular solidity has no ambiguity in terms of boundary or extent; it’s clear where books, considered as objects, begin and end. They are straightforwardly labelled units easily identified as such – paper bricks that one can easily imagine constructing the stepping stones that constitute the line left by reading on a life. On the other hand, even before we read it, we know a book gives access to another world, that its author can lead us into all sorts of mazes of meaning. It can take us deep into the past or the imagined future; transport us to a different country, an alien culture, introduce us to ideas we’ve never encountered before. Books can lure us with fantasy, place a wealth of information before us; they can offer intimate explorations of other lives, weave tales that slake our thirst for stories. A book’s clear-cut shape, the impression it gives of being something bounded, separate and discrete, the fact that it’s such a familiar object, something that surrenders readily to identification and labelling, in fact belies its nature as an entryway into far less easily mapped dimensions than those presented by its immediate raw impress upon the senses. Just looking at or holding the three books that make up Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, for example, it would be impossible to anticipate where the word-paths will lead readers of this unique masterpiece of imaginative writing.
The lines of reading that run through a life like nerves or veins sometimes follow neat prescriptive patterns – as anyone who has undertaken a course of study will know. Formal education leads us through particular subject areas, introduces us to specialisms in which we can gradually gain our own expertise. Bibliographies help structure and guide our reading and thus advance our learning. But beyond the predictabilities of school and university, outside the imperatives of expertise, the demands of professional training, how are our lines of reading decided? What prompts us to us read one thing rather than another? Is there anything we ought to read?
When I was younger – about the same age as Frankie in Sara Baume’s novel – I used to think there were some books that had a wide-reaching claim to be essential reading. Now I’m not so sure. Of course within specific areas of knowledge there are key texts which we would expect anyone claiming specialist expertise to have read. An evolutionary biologist who hadn’t read Darwin’s Origin of Species, or a Holocaust Studies scholar who hadn’t read Primo Levi would surely excite our suspicion in the same way as a scholar of modern Irish poetry who was unread in Seamus Heaney or a linguist who was innocent of Saussure. But beyond the literary totems of specific tribes and territories, are there works that have claim to universal canonicity? I suspect that every reader would nominate a slightly different set of candidates. For my own part I’ve come to believe that it’s more important that people read widely and intelligently rather than that they read any particular catalogue of titles; that it is the act of reading – and the quality of that act – more than any specific syllabus of texts that ought primarily to concern us.
Going back to the tripwire sentence with which I started these reflections, it’s worth remembering that “trip” has other senses beyond the simple one of catching your foot on something and falling down. The word can refer to a journey, to moving fluently with short light steps – even to dancing (when we look to Milton and “trip the light fantastic”). It’s also applied to experiencing the effect of hallucinatory drugs like LSD. It is these senses, not the word’s more pedestrian meaning, that catch the impact of that sentence on page 68 of A Line Made by Walking. Not only does it feel as if it’s taken me on a journey, partnered me in a dance, but it has imbued reading with a kind of narcotic quality; it seems possessed of the vivid potency of something hallucinatory. Such a sense of potency is hardly surprising given what writing-reading offers. It facilitates no less than a reaching out from one life into another. The words a writer crafts upon a page or screen are like threads woven through a labyrinth of countless possible turnings; they allow readers to find their way to all manner of destinations. Writing-reading lets us share our thoughts and feelings beyond the immediate circle of those who know us. It enables us to fix and develop what we want to say in a form that’s permanent enough for it to travel considerable distances through time and space, even surviving our individual finitude. Reading grants us entry into other minds and through them access not just to aspects of our familiar milieu that we might not otherwise have noticed, but to other ages, situations, subjects and outlooks. It allows us to plumb unexpected interiorities in ourselves through exploring the interiorities revealed by others. The lines made by reading over the course of a lifetime, the stepping stones of book after book that we lay down, introduce into the bloodstream of our consciousness something more massively expanding than any hallucinatory substance could engineer. That reading’s mind-altering potential comes without malign side-effects makes it, surely, less akin to some recreational drug of choice than to a kind of miraculous medicine. Its curative prowess combats the parochialism and self-centeredness to which, as a species, we are so dangerously susceptible. We would be truly lost without it.
Chris Arthur is author of several essay collections, most recently Hummingbirds Between the Pages (2018). Further information about his writing can be found here: www.chrisarthur.org