Reading is a very companionable occupation. One can never feel alone while reading. It’s like making friends (hopefully good friends). As a result of this friendship, I am always conscious of regret whenever I finish a really good or engaging book. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend who is about to take a tour around the world.
Sometimes, the regret is because the book is very long and it took my several months to read it. This happened to me earlier in the year when I finished Don Quixote for the first time. I had all the memories of reading it in hospital waiting rooms and by my bedside and even though I was conscious of the desire to finish it – which always increases the closer you get to the end – when I actually achieved my goal it was bittersweet. I didn’t want to lay it aside, it felt so natural in my hands.
Another book that took me several months to read was The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. It didn’t take so long because it was boring, but because it was 800 pages and I have a habit of reading at least three books at the same time, usually a blend of fiction and non-fiction, two of which I cycle through as I read the longer book. I like to have different books for different occasions. Some books fit in purses better than others, non-fiction is usually better to read before going to bed because fiction can be harder to put down, some books I want to relish in absolute silence and solitude while others I am more willing to read in noisy places like a bus or waiting room or car.
I think it must be the sheer intimacy of reading – a complete immersion into somebody else’s ideas and story – but also the intimacy of holding the physical copy. I mean, most people even take their books to bed with them. You know what it feels like, you know how it looks. Holding the physical volume is comforting, especially when there is familiarity with the copy of the book.
Last week, I was trying to read Valerie Lawson’s biography of P.L. Travers and making dismal progress. My head kept telling me I ought to push on, while my heart wanted to chuck it. My heart won and I picked up two books which turned out to be both totally absorbing and highly informative. Sadly and happily, I read both so fast that it was a quick, but glorious, friendship.
I have very much come to appreciate Mary Astor as an actress. She is probably one of the most under-utilized actress I’ve ever seen, which is ironic since she made over a hundred films, but in many she had very little to do. One is always conscious that she could have done so much more. She chose never to be a leading lady (she said she didn’t want the stress) and never fought the studio for better parts as actresses like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck did. In her career she played the other woman, mothers (she must have a record for that), femme fatales, princesses (during the silent era), the understanding wife and practically every other kind of role that comes to mind. But she made many wonderful movies, many of which I love: The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me In St. Louis, Dodsworth, Midnight, The Palm Beach Story, Red Dust, Beau Brummel, The Prisoner of Zenda, Little Women.
When her movie career came to a close, she turned to writing. She wrote two biographies – one about her life and one about the movies she made – and several novels. Her autobiography in 1959 was about her life, her struggle with alcoholism and her conversion to Catholicism. A Life On Films is about her movies and it’s a highly absorbing book. She talks about making silent pictures, the awkward transition to sound and her memories about the movies, as well as many technical aspects of filming. There’s a lot about her method of acting and I must say that when I was finished reading I had tremendous respect for the artistry and technical prowess involved in acting. There’s also bits about the actors and directors she worked with, from Clark Gable to Judy Garland, John Barrymore, John Ford, William Wyler. If you like classic films, I highly recommend this book. It’s very entertaining and even more fun when you’ve seen many of the movies she refers to.
The other book I zipped through during the same week was Jane Austen: Game Theorist. I ordered it from the library because it looked intriguing, but I had never heard of game theory before. It evidently was developed during the Cold War and is the study of strategic thinking – the study of the decisions people make in calculation of what decisions other people will also make. It is a theory that assumes that people are choosing, making their own decisions – as opposed to being forced to do something by circumstances or preconditions.
Chwe argues that game theory, even though it was not called that, was intimately understood by authors like Austen and he proceeds to analyze all of Austen’s books in this light. It was absolutely fascinating. I’ve read some reviewers complain that his digressions at the beginning of the book about strategic thinking in African-American folk literature or during the Civil Rights movement is besides the point about Jane Austen, but I thought it was part of his overall point about how strategic thinking is important in literature – especially literature involving minorities, who have more to lose if they do not think strategically – and how it can be applied to life. His point is not just that you can use game theory to understand Austen’s books, but that Austen’s books can be used to teach – not clumsily, but subtly – about the kind of thinking we use in our own lives.
I enjoyed both books so much, I was extremely sorry when I finished them in the same day – the same afternoon, actually. I almost felt deflated, though also exhilarated at the experience. More friends gone. Reading is a constant cycle: meeting, getting to know, parting. At least, no book ever truly goes away. Every book becomes a part of you, in a way. It is a part of how you think, what things you think, part of your life experiences that we draw on.