A Love of Reading: The Second Collection

by Robert Adams
ISBN: 0771006624

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A Review of: A Love of Reading, The Second Collection: More Reviews of Contemporary Fiction
by Bruce Meyer

Reading is something that everyone does, but how one does it is peculiarly personal. There are deep readers, penetrating minds such as Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom, who can peer into the crystal ball of miasmal authors and perceive a fearful symmetry amid the seeming chaos of the most complex imaginations. There are connective readers who cannot help but play a kind of mental join-the-dots every time they encounter a new text, delighted in the belief that all knowledge is interrelated. Then there are the writer-readers, those keeners like Dante, who have to be literally led by the hand through the worlds of the authors they love most dearly. There are the folks who sit high above the action in the broadcast gondolas, the Foster Hewitts of reading, who read and call each play-by-play as they see it so those at home can sit back and let their minds-eyes do the reading for them. Although he would likely argue that his collections of reviews are not surrogates for reading, but an expression of shared passion among readers who have already encountered the works under discussion, Robert Adams falls into this latter group. With the excitement of someone caught up in the books he describes, he notes the "scintillating blasts" and the "cannonading drives", la Danny Gallivan, and throws in the color commentary to make the discussion a more edifying experience. Just as we craned an ear to Gallivan or Hewitt, so we turn our attention to Robert Adams, literary guide, reader, and book enthusiast.
As evidenced in his new collection of lectures on contemporary novels, Robert Adams loves reading. His book talks are sold-out events where readers, book club members and those seeking the exercise of the mind through the imagination, flock to hear his guided tours of the most talked-about good books of our era. In the Preface to A Love of Reading, The Second Collection: More Reviews of Contemporary Fiction, Adams shares his enthusiasm for what he calls the "joy in reading". He wants his readers to read, certain in the knowledge that the more they read, the better readers they will become. At the heart of his modus operandi is a drive toward creating a more literate book-lover: "My best advice to readers (and it is a counsel I give more often than it is asked for) is to read with passion. Give yourself to the book and, as Kafka said, let it free the frozen sea within you."
A Love of Reading, The Second Collection is a series of lectures on fourteen contemporary novels ranging from Ishiguro's anglophilic study of the master servant relationship in The Remains of the Day to Atwood's Alias Grace and MacLeod's No Great Mischief. As the tour of contemporary classics unfolds, Adams takes in such lesser visited but no less interesting works as Charles Frazier's brilliant Cold Mountain, Azzopardi's The Hiding Place and Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture of Life. These works, argues Adams, are life-affirming. He notes, "I love the optimism about the greatness of the human spirit that is inherent in tragedy, and I laugh at the pratfalls of the hapless protagonist in comedy," because he says he shares an empathy for the humanity of literature that all readers possess. "They, too, have found resonances in their own lives and marvelled, as I do, at the variety and wonder of our shared humanity." What readers will encounter in Adams' book is a cross between William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech and a well-narrated bus tour: enthusiasm and plenty of anecdotal highlights along the way. He stops short of including a slide show.
Each of the essay/lectures is more or less formulaic. Adams has found a structure of discourse that works well in the lecture hall. In some chapters, he opens with a series of laudatory remarks. For Atwood, he uses the term "tour de force." For MacLeod, he is even more passionate, more emotionally involved with the work. Adams explains he read No Great Mischief in galley form, "and I knew even then that the novel would achieve great success." MacLeod's publisher, McClelland and Stewart (which is also Adams's publisher) must have a very perceptive sales and promotions department to have enlisted the assistance of a literary evangelist such as Adams even before the book made its splash.
Throughout Adams's tours of the various novels, he follows a fairly standard formula, a mixture of author biography, historical fact and anecdote. Every now and then he gets a fact wrong. Elliot Lake, for instance, is not north of Sudbury but west along the TransCanada Highway. A quibble, perhaps, but accuracy of information is what such a play-by-play man should acquaint himself with, especially when he makes a point in the essay on MacLeod of his close connection with the author. At times, the historical detail becomes lugubrious, such as the crash course on why the Scottish ended up in Nova Scotia or the prcis of Union conscription during the Civil War. One is want to say, yes, yes, we know that already-let's get on with the reading.
What comes across is the voice of a natural teacher, though not the voice of a critic. Herein lies the uniqueness and the challenge of reading Robert Adams's read on each book. Adams himself seems uncertain of just where one would place what he does. Is he a critic? Is he a book club guide? He tastes great, but is he less filling? In his "Preface" Adams offers an awkward statement that comes close to an apology for not being Harold Bloom: "I am disturbed only when someone suggests there is some mysterious cabalistic [sic] body of knowledge that one must master in order to read intelligently and that the secret workings of literature are known only to a priestly caste." Well, cabbalistic has two "b's" and should be spelled Kabbalahistic; but Adams's point is a troubling one, especially when he cites Northrop Frye, that great don of structuralism, as a major source of inspiration. The indirect knock at Bloom is, perhaps, the great weak point in Adams's argument for a passionate reader. Bloom's persistent contention is that one should bring as much knowledge as possible to a text, and if that knowledge is of a deep, spiritual and anagogic understanding, then all the better. Adams's desire to shepherd his readers through the reading process, to give them all they need to know on a need-to-know basis is admirable, but it leaves little room for the kind of passion that comes from a free, intelligent, and energetic reading. Scope goes missing. Latitude, if not the kind of mental fortitude that makes for a strong, independent reader, is all but overlooked in this process. What readers need is not just the ability to recognize the numbers on the players' backs or even follow the play. What they need is the ability, as they say in hockey, to see the whole ice, to read the game, not just so one can follow the play but so one can love it with the passionate intensity of a Wayne Gretzky. Readers need to connect the dots, not just between chapters in a single book, but between works. More context, less surmise and less joyous yumminess for books.
This is not a country that produces Wayne Gretzkys of reading, and Robert Adams's A Love of Reading, The Second Collection, makes that point abundantly clear, as delightfully yummy as he makes reading seem. This is a country of book reviewers, not critics; of readers who go to book clubs rather than colloquiums; of book consumers rather than debaters of the written word; of narratives rather than ideas. Should one blame Robert Adams for addressing his audience? Certainly not. He's fulfilling a genuine market niche, and good for him. There's passion out there for the written word, and someday we may reach that point when we can fully appreciate, as great lovers do, just what goes on between the covers.

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