So this week, I fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally read Marilynne Robinson's prizewinning 2004 novel Gilead.
Gilead has little, if anything, to do with visual art, but it has some terrific observations in it about reading and writing and their potential roles in people's lives. The book takes the form of a long letter than an elderly reverend is writing to his young son for him to read long after his death, so it's apropos that these kinds of thoughts come up.
Praise for Robinson's eloquent, gemlike writing style has been delivered by the ton already elsewhere, but I have to reiterate it; Robinson manages to condense a lot of wisdom and cogent observations of human life into a relatively slim volume.
I particularly enjoyed the parts where Robinson's narrator discusses reading and writing in relation to solitude and loneliness.
At a presentation for York University grad students a few years ago, I tried, by much slimmer means, to make a related observation about art writing, or arts criticism in general—that beyond providing a service to the readers (telling them whether or not it might be worth their time and energy to go see an exhibition or movie or play, or read a given book or listen to a given album), criticism can be about not being alone with one's observations about an exhibition, movie, play, book or album.
This can, if we extend Robinson's observations below, be true whether one is writing the criticism or reading it. It's obviously not the only impetus behind reading and writing, but it is one I'm glad she acknowledged.
Here are some passages on this topic from the book:
For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.
… I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering far more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.
Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry sould every bitter thing is sweet.” There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.
Now I need to read Robinson's Housekeeping, first published in the 1980s. She took a long time between the two books, but the wisdom is still packed in there, for sure.
(Image from MacMillan USA)