Monday, November 18, 2013

On the Passing of Doris Lessing

Perhaps the best bit of advice I have ever received about reading, of which I do a great deal of, came from a stranger to me, though a writer I highly respect. That writer, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, passed away this weekend.

She once wrote:
"There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag--and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement, Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty--and vice versa. Don't read a book out of its right time for you."
This advice came in her 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook, a book that nobody ever suggested I read and was never on any of the lists I was given of books that I must read in my lifetime. In fact, the only time in a college course I even heard of Doris Lessing was when a professor of contemporary European culture mentioned her in a discussion of writers from various parts of the world. At twenty or however old I was at the time, I'd never heard of Lessing and I certainly had never read her. Now, at almost thirty, I consider her The Golden Notebook one of the more profound books I have read.

The character of Anna Wulf says in the book one other bit that has stuck with me as well:
"It seems to me like this. It's not a terrible thing — I mean, it may be terrible, but it's not damaging, it's not poisoning, to do without something one really wants. It's not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I'm capable of doing something bigger. Or I'm a person who needs love, and I'm doing without it. What's terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is the first-rate. To pretend that you don't need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better."
This is the brilliance of Lessing--to make a simple statement as personal and profound as that. Wulf goes on to say, "[t]here's only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but the second-best." How many writers have I read that have written something very similar and yet I can't place them because they didn't seem as profound in their wordy way of emotionally-charged prose? Plenty, I am sure.

I have a hard time believing we have anyone of Lessing's caliber coming along. In fact, in the last several decades of new authors, I can't think of writer with the talent of Lessing.

No comments :