Parsing Piranesi: on books and reading and time

I’ve been on a bit of a deep dive with my reading at the moment, burrowing into things and not quite coming up for air until they’re done. Normally I’d think about reviewing them the moment that I finish (for they are good, good) and normally I do that, but sometimes I want more. I need to figure out how I feel about something, I need to understand why I’ve reacted to it in the way that I have, and that more takes time.

When we read a book, when we finish it, we have a moment of time right there. The glory of it. The crisp final moment of satisfaction. The page turned, the cover closed. The tangible thingness of it. We have read. The book is done. The event is closed, the circle complete, and we move onto the next.

But that’s never it, right? A reading isn’t a static thing, nor is it a finite thing. We read the book and the act of reading might end and all the pages might be turned but the reading itself – that interpretation of the text – that lingers. And sometimes you don’t know that it’s there until it’s all about you. Something in the air. A texture. A taste. A transformation. The world before isn’t the world that it is now, and even this nowness is becoming something else the more you look at it.

I don’t remember a lot of the books I read. Is that an awful thing to write? I wonder, sometimes, but that’s the truth. I read a lot of books and once they’re done, they’re done. I remember fragments, sensations and textures about them, but the plot? Precisions? I’d be nearer flying.

But the books I read remember me.

They linger insider, they hold a space in the world, and every now and then they reach out of memory to become something present. There’s a sense of the reading becoming friable then, something that holds weight and body and precision on the slenderest of edges before it crumbles away into nothing. Books remaking themselves and making themselves known, briefly, beautifully, a memory marking the world with its immediacy.

Do not forget me, let me live again.

And sometimes I don’t know what that sensation is until I let myself go, let it in. Reading can be about control, so much about that. We’re taught to read precisely, to follow letters, to obey the ink and understand its meaning, but letting it go, letting the rules fly by, there’s a decision that interests me. What happens when you read? What happens when you choose not to read? Can one read but not read, can one experience a book and allow different modes of being, of experience?

This is Louise Rosenblatt, this is transactional / aesthetic readings, this is reader response theory 101, and yet it is also not. It is, perhaps, the first few chapters of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, a book that I reviewed and tried to capture and yet, came nowhere near to doing so. The act of a review, with all the rhetoric such a device involves, can sometimes sit difficulty against a book so furiously distinct at this. I have not stopped thinking about it and what those first few chapters demand of the reader. They are stiff, they are other and I wonder if perhaps, the way to read Piranesi all along was to let go.

And by this, I mean a thousand things. To let go is to let things not make sense. It is to keep going, to cut a path through things that can’t be seen or understood, and to simply experience what the text is. The weight of it. The feel of it. The shape of it. To let that happen and then to kind of wilfully stop yourself from putting two and two together, from deducing, from tying thread to thread.

I felt myself doing it when I read Piranesi for the first time. I felt myself trying to rationalise the strangeness of it, to find a way for it to make sense, and it is only now that I think that’s starting to happen. I needed to let go, to read for what there was there and to experience that.

Strangeness can be strange, pages can be impenetrable, and you can simply just be, I think, just be. The eye of the storm, the reader, the wind – everything.

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