Ford, Cohen, and Butler

One of the few benefits of driving long distances with small children is that it is often necessary to distract yourself, whether from their continual screaming or from the fifth consecutive viewing of whatever cartoon movie is currently obsessing them. I usually accomplish this by reading.  Most of our recent drive to Savannah, Georgia was at night, when it is  impossible for me to read, and I did much of the driving myself, when my wife inexplicably claims it is unsafe for me to read, but I did have the chance to read Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. Hence the title of this post, which is probably also the name of a law firm somewhere or other.

I will not say much about any of these books individually, though I enjoyed each of them in its own way. Instead, I want to describe, if I can, how they came to inform each other for me, not because of any intrinsic connection between them, but simply because I chanced to read them together, because they became unified in my imagination by their association with the same journey.  I want to describe what is, for me, the essential experience of reading.

Except that they are all novels, the three books are really unlike. Erewhon, written in 1872, is a utopian fantasy about a young explorer who discovers an entirely different civilization in an unnamed country. The Good Soldier, written in 1915, relates the complex and tragic relationship of two couples as the convalesce in Europe. The Favourite Game, written in 1963, is an experimental narrative of a young Canadian Jew coming of age in Montreal. Each is from a distinctly different time and place, real or imagined, with a distinctly different subject, written in a distinctly different style. They are not even joined by any conscious choice of my own, since The Good Soldier was the last of the novels I had assigned myself to read for a course, The Favourite Game was taken from my shelf on a whim, and Erewhon was found in a thrift store while on the trip.

Even so, because I happened to read them all together, all within the confines of a single trip, these three dissimilar novels began to inform each other for me. I began to see in them thematic unities that I would probably not have seen had I read them separately. All three, for example, are in their different ways concerned with exposing the superficiality of social conventions. Erewhon pointedly satirizes the social, economic, religious, and legal conventions of pre-Victorian England; The Good Soldier exposes, not without a certain sympathy, the facade of the culture of the English gentleman just prior to World War I; and The Favourite Game depicts a young man’s struggles with the facile social conventions of upper class Canadian Jews in the time preceding the volatility of the 1960’s.

There are many dissimilarities here as well, and it would take a good deal more time than I am willing to give in order to establish between these novels the kinds of connections that would be acceptable to an academic standard, but this is not the point for me. The point is that these connections always appear when I read books, listen to music, or watch films in proximity, and that the appearance of these connections cannot be solely attributed either to the texts themselves or the imposition of my own imagination. The novels, as I have already argued, are not themselves alike, so they clearly do require me to impose upon them the thematic unities that I see in them. Yet, each of these novels, as a singular and irreplaceable text, is capable of supporting only a limited set of readings. There are limits to the unities that I can legitimately impose upon them.

The result, then, is an experience that will always be unique in the world. These singular texts produce singularity. They are read in conjunction with each other, perhaps for the first time; read in the context of a road trip from Ontario to Georgia, perhaps for the first time; read simultaneously with Noam Chomsky’s Miseducation, perhaps for the first time; read by this singular reader, certainly and always again for the first time. This singular experience produces what can only be a singular reading that cannot now or ever be reduced to its component parts. I will never again be able to think of one of these novels apart from the others, or to think of Black Mountain, North Carolina apart from the three of them together, or to think of that experience apart from what I am writing now.

These kinds of experience are what reading is for me.  They are, in themselves, essentially, what reading is.  They are why I read.

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