Reading Style: A Life in Stentences–Jenny Davidson (2014)

The cover of Jenny Davidson’s engaging and inspiring Reading Style: A Life in Sentences features a drawing of a box of chocolates. In the book itself she refers to that box in considering personal aesthetic preferences, which might differ from generally agreed-upon excellence. (If she were buying for someone else, she says, she would choose dark chocolate for its “clear gastronomic superiority,” but if she were buying for herself, she would choose milk chocolate because she happens to like it better. (“Truth is debatable,” she quotes Hume, “but taste is not.”) The box of chocolates might also serve as a metaphor for the structure of her book, an idea suggested by one of Davidson’s most interesting insights.

Prose is Davidson’s preferred genre; thus, as her subtitle suggests, sentences are at the heart of the book. And sentences perform a double function. On the one hand, they are freestanding entities, as we see most clearly in the example of the aphorism. But on the other they are what Davidson calls “load-bearing” structures, connected to the sentences that proceed and follow them. Sentences can be a vector, always leading on to the next, and therefore subordinate to a larger whole. Or they can be an aria, a self-contained unit of meaning the demands that we linger over them, playing them again and again.

Although most works offer both tendencies—and Davidson is often interested here in untangling their effects, as in her marvelous reading of the opening of Emma—it is the aphoristic, aria-like aspect of sentences, what she also calls “sentences of acoustical elegance,” that most preoccupies Davidson. In terms of the metaphor suggested by the cover illustration, then, the individual bonbons matter more than the box as a whole. Even as I write this, though, I think the opposition I’ve made is too neat. Because what Davidson really likes, as she explains in her discussion of taste, is neither the individual chocolate nor the box as a whole but instead the piece of paper her family used to call “the suggester,” the textual explanation of what awaited within each chocolate.

How could it be otherwise for a critic? Her book is itself a kind of suggester, a description that is ultimately an interpretation of the delights that await readers in the box of what Borges called the universal library. All these metaphors threaten to run away from me: I’ll move on, but only after noting that “suggester” seems a strange and wonderful term, an acknowledgement that the interpretation is never quite fully commensurate to the object it describes, but also that there is no failure in that fact, only generosity. After all, what could be kinder than a suggestion? Indeed, Davidson is a kind and generous critic (which doesn’t mean naïve or indiscriminate). Her governing principle seems to be delight and fascination. She’s at her best in showing how the texts she likes do the things they do.

Fittingly, then, the sugester’s book is suggestive. Another way to put it is that the book doesn’t have an argument as such. (Davidson seems a little defensive about this, apologizing for it when she doesn’t have to. I take this to be an occupational hazard of being an academic, where the idea of argument still reigns supreme.) Instead it’s more a list of jottings, a kind of field book of observations as she puts it at one point. Davidson’s close readings do just what they should: they make we want to read or re-read the thing she’s talking about. They help me slow down, they teach attentiveness, they make me see what I hadn’t noticed before, couldn’t have noticed on my own. But even more impressive, to me, are the ideas that Davidson keeps coming out with, some of which are central, we might say structural, and some of which are casual. Here’s an example of the first sort: Davidson contrasts W. G. Sebald with Alan Hollinghurst as exemplary contemporary inheritors of two great literary traditions, the first centered on first person narration and culminating in Proust and the second centered on third person narration and culminating in James. (Her reading of The Line of Beauty is especially fine and has made me keen to read it as soon as possible.) And here’s an example of the second: in a discussion of the limitations of the contemporary Anglo-American short story (exemplified, interestingly, maybe fittingly, by a Canadian, Alice Munro), we get this terrific digression on literary modernism and Davidson’s lack of interest in literary representations of sensation (as opposed to thought or emotion): “it seems to me that the challenge the modernists imposed on themselves, of radically extending what sentences could do vis-à-vis the physiological moment to moment intensity of lived experience, was not in the end a really fruitful one.” That struck a cord with me (and explained the surprising absence in the book of Woolf, surely an important figure to reckon with if we are thinking about sentences). Even though I’m trained in the study of modernism, I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards it, drawn to its outliers or problematic figures. In my book about sentences, for example, no one would loom larger than Lawrence, who, I think (although I know this is a minority opinion), is best read closely at the level of the individual sentence.

At any rate, the point isn’t whether one agrees with Davidson here or elsewhere. (Though, as I’ve said, she’s in general awfully convincing.) Instead the point, and the pleasure, is to see a mind at work. So even when Davidson doesn’t convince (she likes Perec and Koestenbaum a lot more than I do) or feels hasty (as in her too-brief discussion of the great Peter Temple—in general, her references to genre literature aren’t developed enough) there’s more than enough here to admire. It’s a book to dip into, to return to once one’s own reading catches up with Davidson’s.

 

In this sense, Reading Style is a bit like Anthony Burgess’s 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, a book I thought no one but me knew, but clearly a touchstone for Davidson, and a key reference point in the autobiography of her reading life offered in the first chapter. As it happens, this book was important to me too as a teenager. From grade 9-12, so from the age of about 14-18, I had a job shelving books at the neighbourhood branch of the public library. (I was a Page: a delightful metonymy.) I got the job the second time round. The first time I failed the test—to order a shelf of books—because I got the Macs and Mcs all mixed up. This failure was all the more embarrassing because the head librarian, my future boss, was a delightfully astringent Scot of the kind you used to find so often in Canada. (I remember her telling me once, many years earlier, as I checked out a copy of Ivanhoe, “That’s a good book by a good Scot.” I was too nervous and unformed to get the joke.) This failure hurt me a lot (and I think it surprised her too; she’d asked me to apply for the job). Happily, about a year after the debacle, she needed more staff and gave me another try. This was just one of many instances in which it took me a long time to follow the natural and inevitable path of my life.

The job wasn’t always exciting, in fact, it was often pretty boring. (Even now the thought of an entire cart full of fiendishly thin Juvenile Nonfiction—inevitably the most disorganized section of the library—fills me with despair.) But there is no pleasure like wandering the stacks and happening upon things, and that’s basically what the job allowed, two hours at a time, three times a week. One day I stumbled across Burgess’s idiosyncratic little book. Although I would eventually check it out dozens of times and read its suggestions avidly, unlike Davidson I never actually went out and read any of the books he suggested, though I certainly planned to. I can’t remember his suggestions clearly—part of me doesn’t want to go back and look; I’d rather keep it as a muzzy memory—but I’m pretty sure Henry Green was in there, and I like to think Burgess’s choice unconsciously motivated my decision, many years later, to write about him in my dissertation. I think Gravity’s Rainbow was, too. And I do remember checking that out from the library. (I had to go downtown to the central branch to get it. Serious stuff.) I remember that I even started to read it and that I was fascinated by the idea of it and dearly wanted to love it. But it was too hard for me, too out of any context I’d had in my readerly or actual life. (That one had to wait for graduate school, where, happily, I adored it.)

Davidson, by contrast, read those books and a whole lot more besides. Her long-running blog fascinates me in part because it’s a repository of her really extraordinary reading life. It’s not just that she reads a lot; it’s that she does it without being off-putting or pretentious. In fact, it kind of freaks me out how fast she must read. By “freaks me out” I mean it amazes me and it makes me jealous too. There doesn’t seem anything aspirational about her when it comes to reading. All the things I mean to/want to/promise myself that one day I will read she simply has—or so it seems, anyway. (And I’m not just talking about “classics” or “literary fiction”—she reads heaps of things.) Her prodigious intake is matched by a similar output. As someone who for many years found writing to be a burden, a real psychological difficulty, I am awestruck and envious of this apparent facility. (I recognize there’s nothing healthy in either response.)

In the end, then, perhaps the best thing Reading Style did for me was help me reflect on the double meaning of its title. Davidson is reading instances of style. But she is also suggesting a style of reading, a disposition or way of being towards one’s reading life. My own reading life, I’ve realized, has been divided between what might be called, in a therapeutic vocabulary I’ve found helpful, the critical parent and the nurturing parent. The critical parent is the voice that reduces me to tears, the one that is so compelled by ideas of mastery, of filling holes in one’s education, in reading the things one should have read, that it makes reading, the thing I like to do best, no fun any more. (One name for this parent is “graduate school.”) The nurturing parent, by contrast, which I’m glad to say I’ve been able to hold on to, even if not as effortlessly as I’d like, is the voice that fills me with joy, the one that blesses my decision to read whatever I want for whatever reasons, and not necessarily to any particular end.

I suppose the thing I liked best about Davidson’s book, the thing I’m most proud of myself for in my response to it, is that it didn’t make me envious at all. I didn’t berate myself for not writing it (or any other book). I took what I could from it and continued on with what Davidson in her final sentence calls “our real lives of reading and writing.” That’s an utterly personal conclusion, to be sure, and unlikely to resonate for any of you. But it’s fitting for a book that feels so personal to its author too.

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4 thoughts on “Reading Style: A Life in Stentences–Jenny Davidson (2014)

  1. Thanks for this – this is so lovely!

    Re: critical voice: it’s interesting, while I was writing my dissertation I heard an internal version of the stern voice of one of my advisors (I will not name him here, but his initials are DB and he is probably the person whose intellect I admire most in the world!) – every time I wrote a sentence that made an assertion, especially if it was something a little flamboyant or provocative, I would ask myself whether I would stand by it in the face of D’s judgment or whether I would be ashamed and wish I hadn’t said it! Surprisingly this was helpful rather than inhibiting, but I don’t know that I would recommend it more widely!…..

    • Yes, I know that feeling, though it won’t surprise you that it fell more on the inhibiting end of things for me. Clearly you are a much more confident writer than I am!

  2. Thank you for this, Dorian — I have not made my way to Jenny’s book yet but it’s definitely in the summer reading pile, and your review inspires me to move it closer to the top! Your description of the inner “critical parent” and “nurturing parent” hits very close to home. Facing a sabbatical year, and an office full of books that I want to read/think I should have already read (or, have already read but feel like I haven’t read well or recently enough), I am trying to figure out how to get the critical parent to shut up long enough for me to forge a happy relationship with my reading for the year. I think I have another inner reader as well—the child reader, who is perhaps the version of me that comes out when the nurturing parent is doing her job, and reads blissfully with the parent’s blessing taken fully for granted. As I type this, I realize that my dissertation director (NA, and to echo Jenny, one of the people whose intellect I admire most in the world) was my critical parent and my actual parents, but especially my dad, were my nurturing parents. My inner ones were absolutely adopted from external models.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Gena, about the child reader. Your description of what his or her relationship to the nurturing parent should be like is really beautiful. I suppose what I most wish for is that we might find ways to base our adult (even critical) readings on the overflowing generosity of the child reader.

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