Introduction Dead Men Talking
For young readers and young writers, here are half a dozen commonplaces concerning the act of reading, required or otherwise:
1. Dr. Johnson: “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” In principle I agree with this — but I’m not quite this sort of reader. Not confident enough to be this reader. “Inclination” is all very well if you are born into taste or are in full possession of your own, but for those of us born into families who were not quite sure what was required and what was not — well, we fear our inclinations. For myself, I grew up believing in the Western literary canon in a depressing, absolutist way: I placed all my faith in its hierarchies, its innate quality and requiredness. The lower-middleclass, aspirational reader is a very strong part of me, and the only books I wanted to read as a teenager were those sanctified by my elders and betters. I was certainly curious about the nonrequired reading of the day (back then, in London, these were young, edgy men like Mr. Self and Mr. Kureishi and Mr. Amis), but I didn’t dare read them until my required reading was done. I didn’t realize then that required reading is never done.
My adult reading has continued along this fiercely traditional and cautiously autodidactic path. To this day, if I am in a bookshop, browsing the new fiction, and Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities happens to catch my eye from across the room, I am shamed out of the store and must go home to try to read that monster again before I can allow myself to read new books by young people. Of course, the required nature of The Faerie Queene, books 3 through 10 of Paradise Lost, or the Phaedrus exists mostly in my head, a rigid idea planted by a very English education. An education of that kind has many advantages for the aspiring writer, but in my case it also played straight and true to the creeping conservatism in my soul. Requiredness lingers over me. When deciding which book of a significant author to read, I pick the one that appears on reading lists across the country. When flicking through a poetry anthology, I begin with the verse that got repeated in the .lm that took the Oscar. I met an Englishwoman recently, also lower middle class, who believed she was required to read a book by every single Nobel laureate, and when I asked her how that was working out for her, she told me it was the most bloody miserable reading experience she’d ever had in her life. Then she smiled and explained that she had no intention of stopping. I am not that bad, but I’m pretty bad. It is only recently, and in America, that the hold required reading has had on me has loosened a little.
Tradition is a formative and immense part of a writer’s world, of the creation of the individual talent — but experiment is essential. I have been very slow to realize this. Reading this collection made me feel the literary equivalent of “Zadie, honey, you need to get out more”; I began to see that interesting things are going on, more and more things, and that I can’t keep up with them, and that many of them cause revolt in the required-reading part of my brain (I get very concerned by the disappearance of some of the more expressive punctuations: the semicolon, the difference between long and short dashes, the potential comic artfulness of the parentheses), and yet, I so enjoyed myself that even if what I have read in this book is the clarion call of my own obsolescence, it seems essential to defend experiment and nonrequiredness from those who would attack it.
Thing is, the very young and very talented are not beholden. Nor are the readers who would approach them. The great joy of nonrequiredness seems to me that as a young reader, you have this opportunity to hold opinions that are not weighed down by the opinions that came before. It is up to you to measure the worth of the writers in your hand, for you are young and they are young and actually I am still young and we are all in this thing together. And I feel pride when I see that, collectively, we are not only writing and reading weird stories, but also writing and reading serious journalistic nonfiction and comics and satire and histories, and we are doing all these things with the sort of rigor and attention that no one expected of us, and we are managing this rigor and attention in a style entirely different from our predecessors’. We are so good, in fact, that we cannot hope to stay nonrequired very long. We, too, will soon become required, which comes with its own set of problems.
2. Logan Pearsall Smith: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” How important is the “touch of the real”? Should the young man hankering after a literary life read through his massive dictionaries or stand upon a pile of thhhhhem to reach the high shelf where the whiskey is kept? When I was in my teens, making a few stabs at writing, I had a very low opinion of experience. It did not seem to me that trekking to the cobwebbed corners of the world for six months and returning with a pair of ethnic trousers made anybody a more interesting fellow than when they left. Weary, stale, .at, and unprofitable were all the uses of the world to me — which meant, of course, that I was not much good at anything and had no friends. No matter what anybody says, it is a mixture of perversity and stomach-sadness that makes a young person fashion a cocoon of other people’s words. If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library; while the rest of my generation embraced the sociality of Ecstasy, I was encased in marijuana, the drug of the solitary. It was suggested to me by a teacher that I might “write about what you know, where you live, people you see,” and in response I wrote straight pastiche: Agatha Christie stories, Wodehouse vignettes, Plath poems — all signed by their putative authors and kept in a drawer. I spent my last free summer before college reading, among other things, Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, and the Old Testament. By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers, and put myself in no physical danger apart from an entirely accidental incident whereupon I fell fifty feet from my bedroom window while trying to reach for a cigarette I’d dropped in the guttering. In short, I was perfectly equipped to go on to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only very vicariously. Welcome to the house that books built: my large rooms wallpapered with other people’s words, through which one moves like a tourist through an English country manor — somewhat impressed, but uncertain whether anyone really lives there.
These days, given the choice between a week in the Caribbean and a week reading A High Wind in Jamaica, I would probably still choose the book and the sofa. But this is no longer a proud rejection, only a stiffened habit. To read many of the pieces in this collection is to discover the uses of the world, of experience, is to be shown how life can indeed be the thing, if only you let it. I am impressed by this strong, noble, journalistic trend in American writing, to be found in this very book, dispassionately exercising itself over Saddam’s daily existence, or what it is like to live in South Central L.A. I had never met with this kind of journalism until I came to America. It has since been explained to me that most Americans read In Cold Blood when they are fifteen, but I read it only two years ago, and not