Etching by Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1858). | LACMA

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Writing about reading, outside of the publishing industry’s hype cycle

Etching by Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1858). | LACMA
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Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages.

Essays One by Lydia Davis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pages.

There are now two dominant modes of book coverage online. The first is the bibliomemoir essay—“How X New Novel Helped Me Understand Trump” or “Reading Y Memoir Taught Me To Forgive My Dad.” A genre ostensibly engaged with the world, it seeks to better understand either the nebulous “times” or ourselves through literature. The second mode is the list. It tells us, often in blurbs under a hundred words long, which books are soon going to be—or already have been—the subject of those aforementioned essays, often at the same publications running the lists. Both the list and the bibliomemoir essay result from a utilitarian and commodified vision of what reading is—and what it is for. The lists tell you what you want, and the essays tell you what you need. The goal, presumably, is to get clicks and sells books, supporting an ailing publishing industry and occasionally cashing in on some affiliate money.

Offline, two recent books take a different approach to writing about reading. Critic and memoirist Vivian Gornick’s new collection of essays, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, explores her experience revisiting influential books over the course of her life, while short fiction writer and translator Lydia Davis’s Essays One provides a wide-ranging look at how Davis both makes and interacts with art. They represent two different ways to achieve and represent meaningful engagement with literature, beyond its pragmatic use for illuminating the present or our personal lives.

Gornick gets the balance right, drawing on her own life without reducing literature to a therapeutic tool.

In Unfinished Business, Gornick both indulges in and inverts the format of the bibliomemoir essay, writing frequently about the way her experiences have helped her better understand what she reads. She repeatedly emphasizes that time and aging have both warped and enhanced her reading process. Whenever she returns to a text after a number of years, she understands it differently and more fully than before: she finds, for example, that when it comes to the books she’d grown up with, “most of the female characters in them were stick figures devoid of flesh and blood.”

Rereading has often generated such moments of synthesis for her, as when she concludes that

whatever the story, whatever the style, whatever the period, the central drama in literary work was nearly always dependent on the perniciousness of the human self-divide [between metaphoric slave and not]: the fear and ignorance it generates, the shame it gives rise to, the debilitating mystery in which it enshrouds us.

Davis does not divulge as much about the process by which she reaches the detailed, unsentimental readings of her subjects in Essays One, but their clarity and depth reflect the kind of careful reading and rereading Gornick celebrates.

Gornick is rewarded by the process of revisiting old favorites in Unfinished Business, though she vacillates between being somewhat distressed and exhilarated by the experience, likening it to “lying on the analyst’s couch.” Making her way through works like Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Colette’s The Vagabond and The Shackle, she returns again and again to a question posed in the book’s introduction: “If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?” Though occasionally too close to her own readings in a way that risks alienating readers, at her best, Gornick gets the balance right, drawing on her own life without reducing literature to a therapeutic tool.

In the case of Sons and Lovers, which she first read at twenty, when she’d “never even heard the term ‘coming-of-age novel,’” Gornick writes that she “had held it close to my heart all these years for a set of not misinformed but insufficiently informed reasons.” While she had originally understood the novel as being about “sexual passion as the central experience of a life,” rereading in what she refers to as her “advanced maturity” Gornick finds that it is more so about “the illusion of sexual love as liberation.” She places the blame for this misunderstanding partially on the chaste culture of the 1950s, when she initially read the novel. It was against this repressive backdrop that she came to believe that “it was only if we gave ourselves over to romantic passion—that is, love—without stint and without contractual assurance, that we would have experience.” She also admits to simply erasing moments that conflicted with her initial reading of the book from her memory—like the lament of Mrs. Morel, mother of the titular sons, who follows her heart into an unhappy and occasionally violent marriage. Her loneliness is a direct result of the lifestyle Gornick once believed the book venerated.

But a renewed understanding of Sons and Lovers’s theme is not all that she gained with time; her own experiences of romantic indecision and disillusionment have also sharpened her appreciation of the novel’s form:

This habit of Lawrence’s, of making the character two and even three reversals of judgment in the space of a single paragraph, is a vivid presence in Sons and Lovers . . . . I was now old enough to have experienced many times over the alarming bewilderment of my own erratic behavior—the morning of my first wedding day I was nearly hit by a truck because, as I crossed the street, I was still saying yes, no, yes, no to myself, and failed to stop walking when the light turned red—and I could viscerally feel the shock of Lawrence’s acuity in tracing the staccato nature of emotional confusion.

Gornick is never so reductive as to suggest that you need to have a particular emotional experience before you can understand its depiction in a book—only that such moments of recognition can heighten the experience of reading. It is in passages like these, where she more artfully connects her lived experience not only to the content but the style of the book at hand, that Unfinished Business is at its most appealing.

Take, for instance, her essay on Particularly Cats by Doris Lessing. When Gornick read it initially, she did not yet have cats. Though still taken with Lessing’s prose, Particularly Cats did not make a large impression: “Another celebrity writer being cute about cats!” But in the essay’s present, Gornick, now a cat owner, finds herself another celebrity writer being cute about cats. She describes the decision to adopt a cat after years of living alone as something that happened to her own “great surprise.” Fascinated by the cats’ “mercurial motivations,” they become a prism through which Gornick considers our own:

It runs constantly through my mind. Why do we do what we do when we do it? Why does Cat One lick Cat Two madly for a few seconds, then sink her teeth into her sister’s neck, then raise her head wildly suspicious, and flounce away as though she’s been attacked?

Aligning her own experience with Lessing’s, Gornick’s charming narration makes an implicit argument in favor of Particularly Cats. When she brings the force of her sensibility, which has been wielded in explorations of the toughest questions about being a person in the world, to the subject of pets, it does not diminish the nature of her inquiry but highlights the same thing Gornick sees in Lessing’s book: “the willed certainty of a writer who gives no quarter as she stares down her own disappointment with the isness of what is.”


Davis’s essays, spread out over the course of a mammoth volume, have a more studied feel to them. Though clearly the product of sustained engagement, Davis is much more oriented toward the work itself than its bearing on her life. One of the most compelling examples of Davis’s approach is found in “A Close Look at Two Books by Rae Armantrout,” her essay on the Pulitzer-prize winning language poet. Davis demonstrates the fruits that extreme and repeated attention can yield by lingering over the first word of the first poem in Armantrout’s Precedence:

“So these are the hills of home,” And here, it is the little word “So” that does all the work toward the way we hear “home.” Without it, the irony might drop away and the line might open a different kind of book, with a different tone, one that would say, as Armantrout does not say, that the world is a clear, explicable thing to which we all react with shared and acceptable emotions: “These are the hills of home.”

To most people, close reading at this level is likely a remnant of academic studies they’ve long left behind. But Davis’s curious, diligent illumination of Armantrout’s work makes a compelling case for it as a regular practice.

Davis is not always so exacting. She inhabits a number of registers throughout the collection. Her essay on Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, for example, is comparatively visceral. Davis’s appreciation for Berlin’s work imbues her writing on it with a welcoming exuberance. The essay begins, “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be when we’re reading—using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”

The uncertainty inherent in engaging with a text is, of course, at the center of what makes reading—and rereading—rewarding.

Not one to make an assertion like this without explaining just how that “buzz and crackle” is produced, Davis points to the artful way Berlin cuts romantic descriptions of “palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” with “realistic Flaubertian” details like “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” She pays evocative attention to the experience of reading Berlin’s work—how it feels—alongside a convincing description of how that experience is constructed. Crucially, she uncovers how the trick is accomplished without ruining its effect—something Davis attempts with less success when writing about her own work throughout the book.

In “Sources, Revision, Order, and Endings: Forms and Influences III,” Davis explains how her story “Nancy Brown Will Be In Town” came to be, sharing the final version in full, along with an earlier, longer version; the original email that inspired it; her reasons for structuring the story the way she did; and what made the subject interesting to her to begin with. Rather than reveal hidden dimensions, this exercise has the effect of fixing the story in place. Applied to her own work, Davis’s authorial certainty has a debilitating effect, leaving the reader with little to do.

But the uncertainty inherent in engaging with a text is, of course, at the center of what makes reading—and rereading—rewarding, as Unfinished Business attests. That a reader as observant as Gornick continues to find she was wrong in her assumptions about particular books, or that they contain a previously unnoticed negative capability, reveals the narrowness of literary essays that consider their subject primarily through a pragmatic lens. At their best, Davis’s insightful essays also demonstrate how fruitful writing with time and care outside the publishing industry’s relevance cycle can be. Though not quite the traditional criticism that’s increasingly being displaced in newspapers and online today, Essays One and Unfinished Business nevertheless show the value of literary writing that places curiosity and questioning over definitive claims and myopia.

Bradley Babendir has written for The Washington PostThe NationThe Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston. 

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