Howard Jacobson, a bravo

It is so frequent, isn’t it … that we start thinking about a topic, or learn a new word, and suddenly it is everywhere. I was musing here a couple of days ago about character accessibility (can we relate to them??) and how it has become a wildly distorted expectation or demand of fiction, and then this morning I came up to a chapter in the book of essays I’m reading …

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner, novelist, columnist, commentator, very funny man, has a collection out called (wonderfully, after a Chico Marx line): Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It. I just read the piece entitled “If It’s ‘Readable’ Don’t Read It.”

His take-off point for this short, smooth flight is a neurological study showing that the brain is triggered, engaged, all the lights go ON when subjects confront challenges in Shakespeare’s syntax; the need to process, adjust, absorb surprise in language and the illumination that follows. (Yes, I know, a pun, electrode-wired lights go on, etc.) Words that don’t just dully mirror back our ‘usual’ ways of speaking and writing.

Howard (I’ve met and corresponded with him, does one need ‘full disclosure’ in a journal post?) exults amusingly about this, but goes on to make core points, akin to what I was riffing on earlier this week. (Told you, major coincidence … or maybe just receptivity.)

Try this: “‘Then thank me for it,’ I always say, should the charge of ‘difficulty’ be levelled at one of my novels … ‘Struggling with a book has more of reading in it than flicking through it at a predetermined rate… And laying it aside to scratch your head does greater justice to a book’s contents than never laying it aside at all. They also read who are not turning pages.”

I’ll add (Kay, not Jacobson) that laying the book aside to absorb and respond to emotional intensity, real, unexpected feelings induced in us, is another sign of something reaching deeply into our lives from a book. Passages that take us off cruise-control. We pause to think, to grieve or celebrate, or be wrapped in mystery…

And then (Jacobson again), there’s this: “… those other reading-group inanities – ‘I can’t identify with the characters’ or ‘I don’t find the hero a very nice person’…”

I hate to say it, but he’s right (and not just because I wrote this two or three days ago here!). I suspect Howard hates to say it, or see it, too. The idea that books demand nothing of us implies that they offer nothing to us. Or, worse, that the measure of excellence in a novel is how swiftly and smoothly it slides past us (and then, as often as not, is gone forever).

Books that have a reader up at night but then also stay long after, that’s what some want to achieve as writers – and search for as readers. I want a great book to change me, not just make a plane ride pass. It doesn’t happen often. I always say that excellence is rare, in everything – that is why we value it so much.

2 thoughts on “Howard Jacobson, a bravo

  1. There is a fine line in my mind separating an obtuse tract from more compelling fare.
    Whether it is a novel, an essay, or indeed a journal entry, what makes it resonant is its bedrock. The base I have found most compelling is rhythm.
    You cite Shakespeare as an example of the popular exponent of what some readers may categorize as difficulty of relating to the other – I find that sort of review or assessment from readers/critics objectionable, no, worse than that, lazy – and point to his enduring popularity and acknowledged excellence.
    To me that is rooted in his keystone of rhythm. His cadence demands something of you as a reader, drawing you in. His characters may be ineffable to some – including me – but when I twig to the rhythm of his latest act, the rewarding melody is one of the more compelling prizes I believe a reader can win after investing the time and effort.
    Reading without effort is like dancing without a woman in your arms.
    P.S – Your effort, especially. in these Tour Journals. has been an eye-openingly rewarding experience for me.Many Thanks

  2. What I most liked of this blog, is the “when you start thinking of a topic, etc it seems to be everywhere” I thought I was the only who had that problem! I will ever wonder what happens with this words that seem to be everywhere, because there are words I’m sure I haven’t heard before knowing of them…

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