I don’t know about you, Gentle Readers, but I am always a bit anxious when I enjoy a book. I’m afraid the author will do it wrong… If I love the book, follow the characters, am invested in the plot, who is to say that the ending won’t ruin everything? So MANY books are great until the last 50 pages. I don’t need a happy ending; just a good one. So even reading a book I’ve enjoyed becomes fraught with peril as I approach the last few chapters.
(It’s my main problem with Stephen King. I think he’s very inventive, and sometimes quite good. But then it’s like he gets near the end of the book, looks at his watch, and says to himself, “I can bang this out before dinner!” And the ending is insipid.) This is the way the book ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
But then I read, and re-read, A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
Which brings me to my question for today: What would one call the experience of reading a book one doesn’t remember, but knows one likes?
I took a grad class at Very Distinguished University entitled “Booker Prize-winning Novels.” This class introduced me to undiscovered novelists, including Ben Okri, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Salman Rushdie, and offered unread books by Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, and J.M. Coetzee. For me, though, the highlight of the course was my opportunity to re-read Possession. A.S.Byatt’s novel had been placed first into my hands in my senior year of high school by Jolene, my AP English teacher (My junior year English teacher’s name was Earlene; such are the perils of living in the South).
I loved loved loved it.
And for the most part, I couldn’t remember a damn thing 5 years later. I remembered the parallel narration and the scholarship-treasure hunt theme. Mostly, I remembered adoring it. But I had no clue how it ended, and no clue how the bits I remembered fit together.
Routinely, I have an excellent memory for things: books, people, movies, connections. My mind is a repository of useless information. (And yes, I kick ass at trivia games.) So my re-reading experiences are usually friendly things, where I revisit people and places I love, but they are not voyages of discovery. Re-reading is comforting, enjoyable, but can be a bit boring; I always know what comes next.
Possession was different.
It was one of the single most perfect reading experiences of my life, Gentle Readers. Because I remembered loving it, I knew the book would not disappoint me. I knew the ending wouldn’t make me angry, or be unsatisfying. So I was utterly, completely SAFE in my reading. I could abandon myself without hesitation to the story, the imagery, and the characters. I knew, you see, that it wouldn’t let me down.
I luxuriated in this book. I swam in it. Usually, unless I am struck by a particularly lovely bit of writing, I am a pretty speedy reader. Possession took me ages to read: almost two weeks. Keep in mind, Gentle Readers, that I was a grad student on fellowship. I was not working; reading was my job. Two weeks was an eternity in which to read a book. I would read a few chapters and then sit on my couch, chewing on what I’d just read. I even took my time with Byatt’s faux-Victorian poetry, which is just as overwrought as the real thing. And the book was just as good as I remembered it to be! It had not gotten stale; I had not made it more interesting in the remembering. It was a delightful experience.
So how does one describe that feeling? That perfect meeting of ignorance (or forgetfulness) and surety? It is a perfect storm of safety and uncertainty. You can place yourself without reservation in the author’s hands because you know you’ll like the ending, but you don’t know how you’ll get there. It’s a bit like floating in warm water, with the sun on your face, and you know whatever happens, you’re OK. Because you’re swimming in the Dead Sea. And you can’t sink…
Possession @ Barnes & Noble
Possession @ Barnes & Noble