Wednesday 18 May 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

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.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 22nd May at 10am (GMT)


  1. "This to be new made . . . " Consoling, elegant words.

    Is a fortieth birthday so momentous?

    I like the way you include the Bible as a text for random reading and give us the moment in the caravan.

    Regards from South Beach

  2. I agree with your insights about reading poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible (and other books as well). But the big 40? No bigge! You are still a young, young thing! Wait until you reach 50. In my experience, 50 is the one where you definitely are aware of a different horizon. But the 40 in Shakespeare's time was probably like 50 (or older) is for us.

  3. Love the hard-boiled egg/dippy-in approach to literature, which often makes fearsome texts so much more enjoyable and approachable. And that's a great sonnet.
    I would merely reflect that 40 is not the milestone it once was.

  4. Many thanks for your comments. Yes, forty is still a milestone, especially when you grow up in a society where at 25 you're considered middle-aged. :-) Then, again, I don't really thnk much about age.

    Greetings from London.

  5. This is not quite to the point, but I am notorious for reading the end and then going back to finish the rest of the book. The serious point here, though, is that sometimes a piece of literature can only be ingested in bite-sized lumps. Some, like the Bible, have increased readership and understanding because of that. Movies are not filmed in a straight line fashion. The author and director, though should have, at least an idea of, the complete progression from beginning to middle to end. When I edit, I will sometimes segregate scenes primarily dealing with one character and read through on those. It's a dynamic process. I don't see why reading can't be so too, as your uni experience seems to suggest.

  6. I love that many of Shakepeare's
    poem celebrate his lover as opposed
    to just looks - he goes deeper.

    Yes, for me letting the pages of my bible fall where they may has
    often produced a verse I needed to
    read at that particular time.

    London, your approach to reading is
    much like mine. Short stories are
    delicious as well as the random book
    purchased simply because of the author's name.

    I recently read Netsuke, because
    of the title, after looking up the
    word and I was not disappointed.
    WOW, that book is all over my aesthetic. Adored this novella.
    I think you will also.

  7. Oh, p.s. good to see a ballerina
    with short hair.

  8. When I've dipped in a story midway, or at the end, just to get a feel of it, it felt wrong, illegitimate. Yet, we pull things out of context all the time, quote this and that for the sheer pleasure of a phrase, a line, an encouraging saying.

    I guess I better do more improv.

  9. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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