I became addicted to books before I could even read, and I love to share that addiction by talking or writing about them. The act of picking up a book and disappearing into the story is a daily component of my life, silently dictating choices I have made from childhood til today.
I grow every time I read a book, even those judged as badly written. I am always drawn deeply inside the covers, physically, emotionally and psychologically. The world around me disappears and I emerge after the final page a slightly different person. I experience books as if I am sitting beside a stranger having coffee somewhere, and they are sharing something they have discovered, or a dream had. I experience reading as being on another plane from where I am physically located in the world.
This alone however is not a reason to love writing about books. It is just where that story started.
Apart from that unjudging reading of books back-to-back since primary school days my academic credentials are a degree in English Literature, followed by Postgraduate Diplomas in Librarianship and years later in Professional Writing. Each decision was made independently of the one preceding yet, in retrospect, were a pathway guiding and shaping the undisciplined reader in me.
I had mixed feelings about my English Literature degree. On the plus side, I had access to fabulous reading lists, and a wonderful library. The tutorials and lectures introduced me to others, lecturers, tutors and fellow students, who shared my addiction to literature.
I learnt terms and concepts that perfectly encapsulated things I ‘knew’ already but had not had words for; I love for example the concept of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (believing in dragons) as much as ‘enjambment’, an acceptable literary strategy to carry an incomplete line of poetry into the next to maintain a rhyming pattern or show a pause.
However I had a problem with the Leavesite method of literary criticism beloved by the Department, requiring a detailed dissection of text and an analytic approach that was purely objective. That didn’t seem to recognize the unique contribution of the author, body and soul. I toed the line but felt conscious of that silenced voice behind the words I dissected.
It also left out the reader who would bring their own interpretations – naturally enough, as an academic approach requires leaving out any response even remotely subjective to a work. That’s a defining factor of academic work and must be respected as such, however it always felt like my thinking was being boxed into a place; my own thoughts about what and how I read did not fit.
I am always aware of the disembodied author behind the text, their words, ‘speak’ to me, factual or fictional. During my degree I read from the recommended critique lists but also studied works that were biographical: grass roots material like letters, diaries, essays and portraits so I could see their faces and how they lived.
In my final year special project, I chose for my theme how Thomas Hardy’s depiction of landscape changed over Tess of the d’Urbevilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. Feeling a bit nervous about what the reaction would be I sought out his personal writings to find the man himself, sourcing material in a diary and collections of letters where he wrote about his aims and approaches as he worked on all his books.
I used other works of literary analysis and examined Hardy’s stated intentions in his letters and how they appeared in each novel. I also quoted Hardy’s voice from the letters whenever I found a clearly expressed correlation between what he was aiming at and how it was expressed in different degrees of richness and complexity in each of the three works.
I presented the completed work to my tutorial group and tutor, defending my approach. The outcome was overwhelmingly positive; my tutor thought it was publishable, and offered me an invitation into the Honours stream.
This acceptance of my choosing to put the author first as a valid strategy in literary analysis gave me confidence in my own thoughts.
On completing my degree, free to read whatever I liked, I discovered I could no longer read my beloved sci-fi without Leavis dragging me back to reality. Dystopian societies, complex alien societies, robots and cyborgs, something knocking on the outside of spaceships light years from earth – all suddenly appeared two-dimensional. Thankfully nonstop reading science fiction for two years fixed that.
I didn’t lose all I had learnt during my degree, especially retaining the ability to enjoy beautifully constructed sentences and see the scaffolding beneath and ways of writing that I would have missed otherwise – from the ‘no grammar’ of e e cummings to William Faulkner’s unsettling prose and the density of Herbert Melville’s Moby Dick. I battled through many of them; reading Moby Dick was rereading dense sentences over and over for pages then turning a page and suddenly getting it, surrounded by sea gulls and cold salt air and a leviathan of heart-stopping immensity. This made me think more about how I am affected by what I read, how other readers might respond to different writing styles, and how writers accomplish what they do.
Studying a post-graduate diploma in Librarianship gave me an insider view of that most democratic and generous of human institutions, the public library system. I learned the most important thing was how to give readers what they want, and not what I thought they should want. I learnt this in the interview for my first library job with a special library for the blind and print handicapped where I was told my studying classics worked against me as my degree branded me as someone whose knowledge of books was limited and unsuitable; I told them about my science fiction addiction and that got me the job!
Degree and day job sorted, I fitted my love of reading and writing in between work, raising children, and earning enough to keep body and soul together. Familiar with the value of a disciplined approach, and still writing, I enrolled in the Postgraduate Diploma in Professional Writing at Canberra University. Like the English degree, I gained fresh insights but stayed true to writer me; what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it, did not get lost in what I learned there.
All this feeds how I write about books. I think about the authors themselves, where they come from and who they are. I listen to their voice. I think about what sorts of readers choose what sorts of books, and also what publishers add to get writers’ words to those readers. I work on identifying my subjective versus objective responses to a book, including to works shared by fellow writers in my local writing group. And I try to make my words sing.
by Rhonda Cotsell