When I heard that one of my favorite writers had a new book out about reading and writing, I rushed to get it into my hands. And so a few days ago I began Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. Pamuk is not a YA author (but he’s an amazing writer, a Nobel Prize winner with many amazing books to his name). Still, his comments about reading and writing reach across the Adult—Young Adult chasm; essentially, he’s writing about really great books.
One of the things that spoke to me in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist is the idea that every literary (and I know that word “literary” is pretty loaded, but I’ll save my commentary for a later post) novel has what Pamuk calls a “secret center.” Pamuk argues that this is what we search for when we read and when we write. He writes,
What is the novel’s center made of? Everything that makes the novel, I could reply. But we are somehow convinced that this center is far from the novel’s surface, which we pursue word by word. We imagine it is somewhere in the background, invisible, difficult to trace, elusive, almost dynamic…we act, as readers, exactly like the hunter who treats each leaf and each broken branch as a sign and examines them closely as he progresses through the landscape. (25)
I know that sometimes I feel this way when I write; and reading Pamuk’s book (it’s based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard), made me realize that it’s certainly what I do when reading a great book too. It’s funny how non-readers can be mystified by readers. They wonder how we can spend hours just, well, reading words on a page. I mean, really, what are we doing? We are hunting, exploring, searching. We are looking for a center, solving the mystery of the novel. And somehow, in solving that mystery—or even just in searching for it—we understand something about ourselves and something about the world. And every one of us will come away from a book with something different.
I’ve always seen the act of writing as an act of hope. Reading, too, is an optimistic act. Pamuk confirms this instinct:
The power of a novel’s center ultimately resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers. Reading a novel of fine balance and detail, we never discover a center in any definite sense—yet we never completely abandon the hope of finding it. (176)
These are the ideas I’ll be thinking about as I head into a new year of reading. I’ll have the idea of that elusive center as I move into new landscapes, as I meet new characters, as I curl up with new stories. From one reader to another: may you find many great books in the new year.
[Pamuk, Orhan. The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.]