by Jane Carnall
Someone once observed that though we define luxury by cultural standards, in fact everyone has things which stand to them for indulgence and pleasure. For me: to be able to write, good solid prose, one word coming after the other, no gaps and no awkwardness, to write what I know is good, that is one level of pleasure. Another, rarer level: to write what I know is excellent, to leap to my feet and dash about the room, because suddenly I know I have written what no one else could write, I have performed to the top of my abilities, I have done well. So there is the excellent, and the good, and at a lower level still - though a warmer one, perhaps - the pleasure of writing what I know will be welcome by someone I love: writing to give. And at yet another level, the basic pleasure of writing, good or bad, writing rather than sitting still. And finally, the sucky pleasure of writing what pleases me at the moment of creation, if that: writing what I know is bad and unreadable, what not even I will be able to re-read with satisfaction. And yet that kind of junk writing is also a pleasure.
Then there is the pleasure of reading. First and most and as fine in the expectation as in the moment, the pleasure of reading a book for the first time that I know will be good, will give me pleasure, and which fulfils my expectations of it. Second - or first, perhaps, though it means that I miss out the pleasure of expectation - unexpectedly finding myself reading a book for the first time that gives me pleasure, that I know is good. Third, the pleasure of reading a book for the first time: there is no book, except the most professionally dull or tediously written, that it is not a pleasure to read once: and where a book is no pleasure to read even for the first time, I often don't even finish it. There is a satisfaction - I would not go so far as to call it pleasure - in reading columns or articles in a newspaper or a magazine, matters of comment and current affairs, that I will never re-read - unlike the first three categories of pleasure in reading - or at least that I am most unlikely to do so. But these too have, sometimes, furnished my mind: the alcoholic prison governor who meant to break his years' long abstention, but was saved by a row of ice-creams: I so want to use that moment, that instant of choice, those trumpets crying triumph over strawberry ice-cream, for a man who wept. Or the woman who wrote of her sister, brutally murdered and buried without ceremony, of how she and her family buried her again, with all ritual and ceremony and kindness, that her poor bones could rest in peace at last.
Then there is the pleasure of re-reading. There are some books - often those that when I first read them I found it necessary to re-read again and again, soon, several times over - that I re-read at regular or irregular intervals, when I feel the need or the desire, and find in the changed prose a change in myself. To understand at last Kunta's rage at the theft of his child: to appreciate the expert way in which each chapter ends in a cliffhanger when the children first explore the other worlds around Narnia: to make that journey, there and back again, with Frodo and Sam. Re-reading some writers is a pleasure in itself, to enjoy the feel of their prose sliding over me, their skill in words. Then again, some books are simple bread-and-butter: if I have nothing new to read, I must read something, and I will read what gives me pleasure, as eating bread when hungry or drinking water when thirsty. And the primary pleasure in poetry is in the re-reading, to absorb without let or hindrance each word in its matrix, to see how each belongs with each other and creates the central image, the poem.
Just so: humour and porn are both best appreciated the first time, though they too, if well enough written, will suffer re-reading. Yet the first thrill of pleasure is the best: the first moment when arousal into lust or laughter almost shocks me with its intensity. It hurts to come that hard, to laugh that hard: but it's such a good way to hurt, I would not do without this means of pleasure.
15th February 2000
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