Sunday, March 15, 2015

A reading life

I THOUGHT I was a reader until Helene and Jane shamed me.

Jane is no other than the deathless Austen. My father once banned me from reading romances, anxious that all that hormonal pining would rot my moral fiber.

Jane Austen is famous because all she wrote in her 41 years was romances: woman meets man and finds paradise.

Today, Austen is not just plunging dissertation writers into bottomless self-doubt, she is guiding neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars in prising open the mind.

By studying the brain patterns of doctoral candidates reading Jane Austen, an interdisciplinary team of the Stanford Humanities Center established that “cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it”.

According to a Sept. 7, 2012 Stanford Report, skimming or pleasure reading increases the blood flow in the brain but not as much as the close reading one does when one is studying text or reading for an exam.

Do the findings hold true for readers who dislike literature? One of the most formidable readers was Helene Hanff, a New Yorker who became famous in the 1970s when she published her 20-year correspondence with an antiquarian bookstore in London.

In the October 5, 1949 letter that opens “84 Charing Cross Road,” Hanff orders out-of-print books from Marks & Co. on 84, Charing Cross Road. One would be on first-name basis with her authors if one happened to be reared in a library as venerable as one of the 100 found in the University of Cambridge.

Hanff never went to college, but she lived in libraries. When she was 17, the New Yorker fell over a copy of essays written by Cambridge professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. “Q” infected her with her “peculiar taste in books,” a lifelong passion that excluded Literature.

“I don’t like stories,” she declared in a 1963 letter, dismissing the “Canterbury Tales”. The “great lover of i-was-there books” wrote that had olde Geoffrey kept a diary to record life as a clerk in the court of Richard III, she would have gladly learned Olde English.

It’s not an empty boast. In her 1974 sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” Hanff recalled that it took 11 years to read the five books of lectures Q made to his Cambridge students about the art of writing.

The 17-year-old brought home the first volume of his lectures, and found on page 3 a reference to “Paradise Lost”. So she told Q, “Wait here,” returned to the public library and went home with Milton. But then Milton, on page 3, refers to Isaiah and the New Testament. Hanff, reared in Judaism, again said, “Wait here,” and trekked back to the public library.

Eleven years later and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, Hanff finished Q’s lectures about how to write. So did all that reading teach her how to?

When Hanff passed away in 1997, an Independent obituary described “84” as the kind of book “people passed on or gave to each other”. Fans included the Stanbrook Abbey where a borrowed copy was placed in a glass case and taken out for a nun to read one page a day to the enclosed order of Benedictine nuns.

Hanff, who later in life discovered Austen (“went out of my mind over ‘Pride and Prejudice’”), wrote in “The Duchess” that she always considered herself “ignorant”: “while other people are reading fifty books I’m reading one book fifty times”).

Thanks to Jane and Helene, it’s time to read again.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 15, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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