Saturday, February 11, 2012

If on a winter's night a traveler: Thinking About Thoughts

         I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, translated most skillfully by William Weaver. It’s taking me much longer than it ought, seeing as how delightful it is and how reluctant I am to put it down once I pick it up.
            If I ever die (what a peculiar thing to say – of course I’ll die. And yet I can’t bring myself to say it with certainty. I need…the possibility…of something else.), I hope it happens quickly. I hope I don’t have even a millisecond to register that I am dying – I hope I am simply dead. Because if a tiny crumb of Time is given to me, I will consume it with one thought, and that thought will not concern myself, my family, any place I did not travel to, any thing I did not learn, or any amount of money I failed to make. The thought will be: I have not read enough, I have not written enough, and just thinking about thinking this thought makes me weak and nervous, tight-throated. Whenever I think about  how I may someday think this thought in some vague version of my future, I immediately start scrambling for all those books I want to read, and reread, and I start reading scraps of them all, absorbing none of them, and it’s awful.
(That was a very good excuse to not have finished a book yet, wasn't it? I'm almost proud.)           
            So Chapter One of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler: It begins by greeting you, the reader, very fearlessly, flaunting its second person with a sly I’m-very-clever-don’t-you-think-so? smile. (I do, in fact, think so.) It soon flashes back to when you bought the book in the bookstore. After it's done describing how you bought the book, a new sort of unfinished story begins, about a traveler in a train station.
         The part that addresses the reader directly feels more like a prologue than the first chapter, as if the two separate sections were accidentally merged. I wish it were a prologue, because then I would be able to say I have a favorite prologue, and it’s Italo Calvino’s, and I would feel somehow more well-read if I could say this.
            Italo Calvino, like most writers, is obviously a reader. Here’s an excerpt from his should-be-a-prologue-chapter-one:
            “In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.”
            And he continues to describe, among others,
Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages
Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

            It brings me so much pleasure to be accurately described. What gives me even more pleasure, however, is seeing the world through a lucid lens that is far too lucid to be my own. Italo Calvino saw the world crystal clear. He must have, to alertly take note of how his own head processed the various books in a bookstore. These are all thoughts I’ve had as a reader and book-buyer, but I’ve never thought about those thoughts. I’ve never acknowledged that I have those thoughts, before Calvino pointed it out to me.
            One of the most pleasing things a writer can do for a reader is point out a reader’s thoughts, and force, for a time, mindfulness into the spirit of the reader.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Finite Communication, and Fandoms

            There are so many limitations to how well you can know someone. You can be married to another for twenty years, wake up every morning together, speak every day, but you’ll never be inside the other’s head. You’ll never share the same brain. And you’ll always have memories, of a time before you met that person, as if that person once didn’t exist, at least not for you. And is your significant other the only human with whom you want to connect? No, of course not. But people are wary of letting others in. So many conversations are superficial, like two consciences just barely skimming each other. More intense conversations involve a further mingling of consciences – more satisfying, yes, but still not enough. Not just because you’ll never share brains completely, but also because there are going to be quirks that you can scarcely tolerate in the other person. And the other person likely lacks the self-awareness to notice his quirks, let alone why the quirks exist. In order for meaningful conversation to take place, you must push those hated quirks of the other person to the back of your head. But they’re like a festering wound, and eventually they’ll reek so much that – meaningful conversation be damned – you’ll hate that person anyway, want your connection with him to wither.

            This is a depressing business, thinking of our finite connections to others. Fiction, though, is different.

            Fiction allows you to do what you would never do with real people. It’s never socially unacceptable to pry too far, or think too deeply about a fictional character’s motivations. Everything about the character is open to scrutiny: Childhood experiences, school friends, love life, eventually death, familial relationships, habits, places travelled, most bizarre thoughts. And since the character’s not real, there’s never been a time when you didn’t know her. You don’t have to be bugged by knowing that she had a childhood you didn’t get to experience with her – you can experience it with her. Time is meaningless when you care about a fictional character, and the connection to the character has no limitations (besides, of course, the character’s lack of existence, which is less major than it sounds).

Some reverence for the orginal, before...
            It’s relieving to know someone else as completely as you know yourself – to know what type of music he would like, to recognize the clothes he’d buy, to hear his thoughts inside your head. And you can never be wrong about him, you can never mistake a song he’d like for one he wouldn’t. He’s not real. You’re making things up as you go. Fictional characters are flexible.

            Consider the beloved Sherlock Holmes. If you were the roommate of Mr. Holmes, if he were real, you would likely despise him. He’s a drug user, he falls into bouts of depression and doesn’t leave his couch for days, he clutters the kitchen table with his science experiments. He’s aloof, he keeps weird sleeping hours, he invites seedy characters into your home, he deduces personal things about you that you wished he didn’t know. He’s condescending and sometimes manic. Objectively, Mr. Holmes makes a terrible roommate. But why is he so loved by the millions, timeless since his initial appearance in A Study in Scarlet? Because through fiction you are able to understand Holmes. It’s impossible to find someone odious if you fully understand them. Holmes’s drugs and mood changes and science experiences, the seedy characters and sleeping hours, even his violin playing, all stem from his need for continuous brain work. He was blessed with a remarkable brain and now he struggles to occupy it. After knowing that, you sympathize with him, and his quirks become manageable. Endearing, actually. In real life, however, it’s unlikely you would be able to lucidly peer into his brain. You’d probably move out of his flat in a week, leaving 221B behind forever.


            Onto a slightly different topic: fanfiction is a beautiful, underestimated process, because it allows its readers and writers to strengthen the “connection” they have to fictional characters. A book is read, and one of its characters is especially loved by the masses. Fanfiction is written about the character’s childhood, about how she became the lovable person she is in the book. Events that were alluded to in the book are written out in detail through fanfiction. The gaps are filled. The character is realer than ever.

            Fanfiction often isn’t taken seriously because anyone can make it. There aren’t any agents or publishers rejecting the rubbish stuff. But there is well-written fanfiction out there. Heaps of it, genuinely good. Deep, thoughtful, well-researched. So the argument of fanfiction being for-and-by silly 13 year olds doesn’t hold.

...I show you Benedict Cumberbatch's version of Mr. Holmes.
            Perhaps another reason why people rarely admit to being fans of fanfiction (except among close friends) is because it involves admitting that they have simulated an intense and deep connection with someone who does not exist. In many ways, it’s the most thorough connection they’ll ever have, and it’s personal. Letting the world see that they know someone thoroughly could make them vulnerable. In fact, I feel a little embarrassed by writing this, as if someone will think I’m crazy for feeling connected to fictional characters. But if you’ve ever read a book, then you’ve likely felt the same.

            In this way, fanfiction is what people write while they’re waiting for brain-merging machines to be invented. One day, maybe we will be able to share all of our thoughts with others, know each other completely. But until the world can figure out how to overcome finite communication, fictional characters are all we’ve got.