Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

They’re a bit like words: once you’ve seen them you can’t unsee them and they colour everything that comes after. For example, a few years ago I read about a small, evil creature that renounces love in order to wrench a powerful (cursed) ring from the depths of a river. I’m talking about Albert, a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Throughout the reading I could not shake a familiar feeling: it was like a more nordic, germanic, poetic version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yet, Wagner wrote his masterpiece a century before Tolkien, so literary influences must have cascaded the other way. My personal reading sequence is to blame.

Why stop at thinking about sequences, though?

I have up to two dozen books on the go simultaneously, representing a cross-section of my current, most acute interests. This means that they blend and weave in and out of the tapestry that is me, as I finish some and start others: Anne Carson’s red-winged monster-man from Autobiography of Red shades into Cortázar’s Bestiary; beggar’s velvet from Mark Forcyth’s Horologicon flies from the bed sheets as I settle down to read Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory; the shrunken heads of Augusto Monterroso’s story Mister Taylor bob along with the stuffed lion of John Banville’s Irish circus in Birchwood.

In my case, I suppose, it would be more apt to say: Books are transformed by the webs to which they belong.

How would you personalise the Quote?


Reading Recommendations

  1. Compete Works and Other StoriesAugusto Monterroso. Try making heads or tails of it. Let me know.
  2. QQ posts on Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.
  3. QQ posts on Tolkien.
  4. Between Infinity and a Sneeze, QQ. On how Hernández writes infatuation. 

12 responses

  1. Excellent post and great point. I saw a similar example the other day, a critic said that a writer was in certain parts channelling Burroughs; I checked the publication date, it was 1948, when Burroughs hadn’t published a single word yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That makes a lot of sense to me now. I have been reading a whole bunch of one particular author and I picked up an omnibus of Roald Dahl’s and at first it didn’t make sense because I was reading him through eyes preset to interpret a totally different genre. Then I became immersed and had to go back and start on Dahl again. It was like a different book completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I usually take it slow at the beginning of the book, to get a feel for the writer’s lilt and the world their building. I experience the jarring you describe most when I start a new book that very different to any other I’m currently reading (not surprising!), but once I’ve slotted into the correct mind-frame it’s not a problem. (It took a while to learn for it not to be a problem. I read many books concurrently, so I’ve got to be able to switch between worlds/lives/stories fairly fluidly if I’m to make sense of it all.)

      Speaking of Roald Dahl, which omnibus? I’ve read Volume 1 of the his Complete Short Stories, and don’t seem to be getting far with Volume 2 (although from everything I’ve read, it should be more fun for those of us who weren’t pilots).

      Like

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