Sunday, February 13, 2011

Synergistic Reading

When we read, we bring our life experiences, prejudices, hopes, and dreams with us.  All of our personal baggage creates a synergy with the words the author put on the page.  Each person who reads a given novel gets something different from it, and each person is affected by it -- each person is changed -- depending partly on the writing and partly on their baggage.  The effect is stronger than the simple sum of the words and baggage, which is what makes it a synergism.

Sometimes, when reading two books close together the works themselves create connections the authors never intended.  It's an odd and refreshing synergy that comes from one book becoming another book's baggage in real time.

Two books I'm reading together right now are Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.  Lost Time is set in the late 1800s, in what I can only describe as Victorian France.  The electric light comes into use during the course of the novel, but it's mostly candles and footmen, landaus and horses, twice-daily post and hand-delivered messages, voluminous dresses, walking-sticks, and a vague sense of envy of far-off London.

Strange and Norrel is set in the early 1800s, during the war with France's Emperor Napoleon.  The feel is much the same as Lost Time except that there is no electric light in sight, France looms in the background as a malevolent force rather than a trend-setter, and magic is real.

I put down one book and pick up the other.  Sometimes I lose track of which one I'm reading.  For example, I confuse Lost Time's young Gilberte with the older and magical Miss Absalom of Strange and Norrel.  They are both wearing blue gowns, they both have red hair, they are both intriguing women (for entirely different reasons).  Gilberte lives in a sort of fairytale world (of tea parties, theater shows and such) which is at first inaccessible to the narrator, and which he is later allowed to enter.  Miss Absalom died some years ago, and now, apparently, lives on in the land of fairie:  Strange is (currently, as I read) trying to reach her there.

Would I have noticed these and other parallels if I read these books separately?  I doubt it.

Sometimes reading two books at the same time gives you more than just two books worth of reading.

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