Reading and Writing

a-globe-in-snow

Roberto Bolaño once said (in all of the introductions I read, they keep repeating this) he was “much happier reading than writing.” I sometimes feel the same way, or maybe I almost always feel the same way. Borges said he was prouder of the books he’d read than the ones he’d written, and yes, I feel that way too. (I’ve read this before, and there it is again in the Bolaño book I just put down.) Both statements by both men are, no doubt, lies: lies of the kind that you can say without realizing they are lies, lies you can identify with without too much effort even if they aren’t true. Or statements which are sincerely expressed but aren’t always true, which is the same thing as a lie.

It’s probably easier for me to identify with the two statements because I haven’t written anything. Or because most of what I have written (which could fill many volumes) isn’t published: if I deleted everything on my computer, burned all my files, trashed my gmail account, it would be as if I’d never written anything, but in a different way than if I destroyed and erased my many books.

Similar, because even if the loss is so great that it makes you weep (as the writer Anna Banti wanted to after her home, complete with a near-complete novel, was destroyed in a 1944 bombing), you can never lose the physical act, the practice, the training, of reading and writing. You can lose your fortitude, your edge, your perseverance, your confidence, but never your skill. You never lose it entirely. But lost writing is private and lost reading is public: because the books you read exist in the cultural commons, they are never really lost. Whereas lost writing never existed in the first place.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to imagine how one could be happier or prouder reading than writing; inevitably, the writer’s own work must always remain private to her, can never become public, truly public, and thus never offer the relief that reading does, as Borges and Bolaño must have known, its refuge from the fear of wasted effort.

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