A signpost book

Kate S. has written about signpost books, an idea I’m liking very much; the idea is that certain books, not necessarily the best books you have ever encountered, although maybe so, meet you at just the right time and speak to you in such a way that changes your subsequent reading. Here is Kate’s definition, in which she distinguishes between formative books and signpost books:

What’s the difference between a formative book and a signpost book? A single book could certainly be both, but if I’m interpreting the definition properly, an aesthetic focus is central to the latter. Girish writes of films that are breakthroughs in that they help the viewer to better understand film as an art form and that provide lessons to take into future viewing experiences, not lessons to take into life generally. A book may be formative because of its emotional or psychological impact. But it would be a signpost book if it helps the reader to better understand what language can do, how a story or a novel or a poem works, thereby enhancing that reader’s appreciation for literature as an art form, and sending him or her off into the next reading experience equipped with a more discerning eye.

Isn’t that an interesting way of thinking about a particular kind of reading experience? For all my talk about how literature can or can’t change people, it’s nice to get specific about it for a bit.

For me, a recent signpost book has been Virginia Woolf’s diary. It has changed the way I read, and it has done so by aesthetic means. It’s strange, however, to think of a diary as changing how I read because of its aesthetics, since diaries are so to-the-moment and generally aren’t revised or worked over with care. And yet there are passages in the diary that are beautiful, and if they aren’t crafted as a story is, they contain their own structure and attention to detail and innovative use of language. And a diary itself has an important structure to it: the structure of daily or nearly daily writing, with its implication that everyday details matter and deserve to be recorded.

I read this book in small sections, mostly a little bit each night before I went to bed, and I found that this is an excellent way of living with someone’s diary for a while. It’s not reading through their life at the pace they lived it, since I might read several entries each night, but it is reading the life slowly, getting a sense of daily rhythms over time. Some nights what I read wasn’t memorable in the least; other nights I read passages that still stick with me. And this is how life is, with many days that disappear and some that remain in the mind.

I’ve continued reading other diaries, including Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters, and I’m reading it in much the same way as I read Woolf’s: a little at a time before I go to bed. I’m also appreciating the aesthetic value of the book; Burney takes great time and care to reproduce scenes from her life complete with long stretches of dialogue, and I can see how her journals and letters are practice for her novels. So, I think Woolf has taught me the value of reading diaries, a little of what they are capable of doing, and a good way to read them — slowly, to get the feeling I’m living alongside an author for a while.

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