Preach: Sister Carrie

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Read me. Photo: Wikipedia.
Read me. Photo: Wikipedia.

If you want to write, you have to read all the time because reading is the other half of writing. A person who is serious about identifying herself as a writer ought to say, “I’m a writer-reader.” We could get rid of that annoying hyphen and make it one word: writerreader. It’s hideous, but so are “stomachache” and “anodyne” and we get along with those all right.

Philip Roth said that the novel has about twenty-five years of relevancy left for the general public. Novels will still be written, he says, but the number of people who read them will get very small, similar in size to those groups of people who enjoy reading Latin poetry, say. Roth says that because print is changing so rapidly and because our pace of life is simply not matched to the form of a novel — neither in length or content — these particular sorts of books will fade away. Reading a novel takes focus, he says, focus and attention on one larger thing that we so often trade for many smaller things. “If you haven’t finished reading a novel in two weeks,” Roth said, “then you haven’t read the novel.”

While my hosts and I waited for a table at the restaurant in Georgia last weekend, I wandered into a used bookshop. I hunted for poetry but there was none to speak of, just a biography on Anne Sexton. (I think in my current brooding state five-hundred pages on the life of a brooding poet would be nothing short of disastrous.) The “Classic Literature” shelf drew my attention, but my perusal was desultory. As Roth said: a novel demands time and focus and I choose to spend mine elsewhere. Of course I read novels from time to time and I’ve read some pretty important ones (Crime & Punishment = hated it so, so much) but reading an engrossing novel almost unpleasant for me because I get too carried away. It’s the same reason I don’t watch or follow sports. A couple hours into great literature or the NFL and  I start shouting at the book or at the television. I throw the book down and have some spasm on the couch because Character A is so stupid! stupid! stupid! or I jump up and down and twirl and hot-step when there’s five minutes left in the quarter (?) and my team is hanging on by a thread. I don’t like those feelings. I feel manipulated and vulnerable.

But I bought a novel anyway. The edition of Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was just too perfect to pass up and at $4.25 I couldn’t afford to. The story of Sister Carrie is kind of my own: country girl goes to Chicago and makes good/bad. How did Dreiser know to write my biography 80 years before I was born? But here it is, to my left, a book published in 1900 that sketches out great tracts of my experience in this life. It’s hard to put down for that reason; it’s also hard to put down because the late-Victorian mores are hilarious. Here’s how Carrie and a character I won’t name communicate their white-hot, all-consuming, life-destroying passion for each other, no kidding:

       He leaned over quietly and continued his steady gaze. He felt the critical character of the period. She endeavoured to stir, but it was useless. The whole strength of a man’s nature was working. He had good cause to urge him on. He looked and looked, and the longer the situation lasted the more difficult it became. The little shop-girl was getting into deep water. She as letting her few supports float away from her.
“Oh,” she said at last, “you mustn’t look at me like that.”
“I can’t help it,” he answered.
She relaxed a little and let the situation endure, giving him strength.
“You are not satisfied with life, are you?”
“No,” she answered, weakly.
He saw he was the master of the situation — he felt if. He reached over and toughed her hand.
“You mustn’t,” she exclaimed, jumping up.
“I didn’t intend to, he answered, easily.

Sister Carrie has been called “the greatest of all American urban novels. I’ve thrown it across the room twice already, which means it gets at least three stars from The PaperGirl Book Review.

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