Roses & Reading

At the end of the day, here I am with a belated Sunday poem.

A Rose and Milton | Jorge Luis Borges

From the generations of roses
That are lost in the depths of time
I want one saved from oblivion,
One spotless rose, of all things
That ever were. Fate permits me
The gift of choosing for once
That silent flower, the last rose
That Milton held before him,
Unseen. O vermilion, or yellow
Or white rose of a ruined garden,
Your past still magically remains
Forever shines in these verses,
Gold, blood, ivory or shadow
As if in his hands, invisible rose.

I have been lying on the couch this evening, running a hand through my hair as I read The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust by Kristjana Gunnars, a memoir-essay by an Alberta author that I picked up years ago at a library sale, long before I’d read Proust myself or even really knew who he was. I must have liked the title and the cover (lush red roses). It is about a woman reading Proust in a rose garden in Germany, but she also reflects on the implications of all women reading. She refers to Anais Nin, Kirkegaard, Antonin Artaud. It was short and strangely compelling. It had the air of several strange and lonely summers I’ve spent, working at a camp by a lake or taking summer courses in a university town, alone and yet there are all these people. Living alone, longing for connection, full of so many thoughts. Depressed and yet smelling, seeing the roses, the wild pink roses that grow along the roads, paths and parks of Alberta. It made me want to read Flaubert, Sartre. And Proust again, as usual. (The photo was appropriately taken on the streets of Paris.)

It occurred to me in this summer of reading that the whole idea of “reading” is suspect. We think that to read is to sit down with a book, scan its pages word for word, finish it, and put it away. That is a consumer model of reading, and that is the one we have. Then we make an industry of the commentaries we produce about the books we have consumed. The market economy relies on this idea of the reader as consumer, in order that we may go and purchase another book, and then another. So we can say “I have read that book,” and it will be equivalent to saying, “I have been to the Andes” or “I have seen India.” The reader as tourist.

But if you care about a book, you will be “reading” it in a very different way. I have known people to smell their books. A new book, just off the press, smells glossy, fresh. An old book, taken off a used bookshop shelf, has the smell of previous readers on it. The smell of the rooms it has been in. I have known people to get emotionally involved in the size and shape of the print, the size of the pages, the color of the pages and nature of the binding. It is a personal matter. I have known people to carry a book with them wherever they go. They cannot leave the book behind: it is too meaningful a possession. There is too much of themselves in the volume to let it stay behind. I knew a woman who carried a book of poems in her purse always. When she felt depressed, which happened often, she took out the little book and read a poem for consolation. The book as best friend. I knew a man who spent his life reading one work. He spent ten or fifteen minutes every night before sleep reading a bit of Robert Musil. It was like a companion through his life, one whom he would not give up. At least here, he seemed to say, is a soul mate, an intelligent man on whom I can rely. The book that holds the world together. People will give a book to a child or a friend. It is more than a gift: it is an inspiration. A gesture. The gift of soul, something that grows with time and does not get used up. This carrying a book around, this sleeping with a book, giving a book to another, finding solace in a book: these are all ways of reading.

I also started thinking about reading some 17th century British stuff today, after thinking of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, Restoration theatre and all that. A sexy, dirty time I’ve not explored very much and I’ve been curious in Rose Tremain’s Restoration set in that time period for a while now, so went and got it at a used bookstore today. I know, I know, I am a fickle reader. I like variety and cannot make myself stick to a plan. Early 20th century women authors! The Victorians! I love the scope of history, how wide and broad it is, how there’s always something new to learn and explore. I’m thinking of writing about my favourite historical novels tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Roses & Reading

  1. Linda P says:

    Thank you for the poem, the photo of the rose taken in Paris, and your thoughts on how we read.
    On a sunny Monday morning, sitting reflecting on my weekend, reading your post and waiting for the washing machine to finish a programme, you have made me think about my own reading and writing. My desire is to take my reading at a slow pace and do justice to the whole, wonderful experience of it. It’s easy to rush on into the next desired experience and I hope I won’t fall into that trap now that I’ve got the time to read, but without youth on my side. Thanks for the reminder to savour the moment, especially when reading.

  2. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    Another lovely poem and I love the passage on reading. So much to comment on but the sentence I shall remember is to try not to be a reader tourist. Though the current book I’m reading I am – but I think that’s just because it’s not quite fitting with my mood.

  3. Penny says:

    I’m looking forward to reading about your favourite historical novels! At the moment I’m reading ‘Testament’ by Alis Hawkins, which I plan to blog about soon. It’s part historical, part modern and the historical part deals with the building of a college in late 14th century England. I recommend it!

    I also enjoyed your excerpt from ‘The Rose Garden’. I must look for that one!

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