One of my favourite exercises when I did impro at uni was one in which the instructor gave us, actors, a famous play each and asked us to open it on a random page. We, then, had to create and develop a scene on the spot using texts which, most of the time, were not related to each other. The format was changed slightly for actual performances, with the addition of adjectives, nouns or verbs thrown at us by a live and totally engaged audience who was willing to see whether we were able to craft a credible and, above all, comic scene out of the material provided. It was possibly one of the few instances in which the likes of Ionescu, Brecht and Molière shared the bill in the same show.
One of the outcomes of said exercise was that my reading habits slowly changed. Whereas up to then I was happy to read sequentially - and novels usually demand this approach, exceptions notwithstanding -, eventually I began to read volumes of poetry and short stories randomly. Sometimes, it would be the name of a particular author that would make me open the book on a particular page. Sometimes, I would close my eyes and let the book fall on my lap and work my way forward or backward from the passage selected. Obviously, it goes without saying that if it was a collection of short stories what I was devouring, I had to rewind to the beginning of the tale.
This approach was instrumental in my reading of The Bible, for instance. Bought for ten Cuban pesos in the 1992 Havana International Book Fair, the holy text arrived shrouded in the mystery of the forbidden and unexpected. The former because of an earlier clampdown by the government on religious people and the latter because no one could predict that one day the highly influential volume would be sharing the sales shelves with the likes of Guillén and Gabo.
Naturally, the first chapter I read was the Book of Genesis and straight away I realised that in order to really enjoy this cultural landmark, sequence had to give way to randomness. One reason for The Bible's popularity over the centuries is how its scriptural writings are laid out. They invite readers to sample bitesize texts and mull over them. Like Aesop and his fables, where you can jump from The Tortoise and the Hare to The Boy Who Cried Wolf; in The Bible you can go from reading about Solomon in the Books of Kings to learning about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Thus, random reading has been my companion in my literary jaunts for many years. For example, one night last August whilst vacationing in Wales, I was (again!) trudging through my old copy of Shakespeare's sonnets when I decided to close my eyes and let the book open on any page. The result was Sonnet 2, which until then had escaped my radar. It was a cool, fresh night, the caravan's windows were shut and the only sounds came from Mother Nature struggling to find a balance between summer and early autumn.
The lines called out to me from the word go. And I was not surprised in the least as to why. For someone about to hit the big four-o this year, the opening "When forty winters shall beseige thy brow..." carries the musky smell of experience, the joys and tribulations of a life well lived. Shakespeare's poem also points at continuity, at the bloodline, passed down from one generation to the next. From this perspective, his paean to middle age is one of the many rewards one encounters when reading randomly.
When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tottered weed of small worth held:
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.
Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 22nd May at 10am (GMT)