A reader’s guide to understanding the world
“What, then, is an essay?” asks Susan Olding in “Unruly Pupil,” which appears approximately two-thirds of the way through “Big Reader,” before going on to provide a series of possible answers: “A familiar voice. A musical meander. An atlas of the world. A refugee, perhaps, or an enlightened immigrant; a being without a home. A hidden, forbidden pleasure. A sideways glance.”
What all of these potential responses have in common is that they are metaphors; writers think in metaphors, but so too do devoted readers. Olding is both, and, in her second essay collection (following 2008’s “Pathologies: A Life in Essays”), the author focuses on the twinned subjects of books and reading and how those things help clarify and contextualize lived experience.
Her approach in doing this is not programmatic or prefabricated; the individual essays in the volume build their cumulative meaning thematically, not stylistically, demonstrating another principle elucidated in “Unruly Pupil”: “The essay could take so many shapes, so many forms. It was attracted to definitions, but never definitive.” It is the adjective, not the noun, in the piece’s title that carries the bulk of the weight.
As befits the assumptions here, the various pieces in “Big Reader” form a mixed bag: revisiting Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” as a counterpoint to an examination of Olding’s own romantic history; the author’s relationship with her partner’s daughter viewed through the prism of the wicked stepmother trope in fairy tales; a collage of impressions brought up by Hogarth’s illustrated series “A Rake’s Progress”; a meditation on the way the construction of Doris Lessing’s novel “The Golden Notebook” influenced Olding’s own thinking, and the way Olding’s evolving thinking changes her perceptions of Lessing’s novel.
Together, the individual entries in “Big Reader” (which is named for an electronic reading device Olding tried out for her mother after the older woman began losing her sight) create a pattern that reveals itself only gradually. This measured unfurling has the effect of emphasizing a pair of elements — an essay about Toronto during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and one about Olding’s father, who suffered a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma — that appear out of place in the overall design. An attempt is made to justify the inclusion of these two pieces in an addendum at the book’s end, but this bit of last-minute shoehorning feels unsatisfying.
Which is not to suggest that either essay on its own is devoid of interest, merely that the two pieces strike notes that sound vaguely discordant; elsewhere, Olding operates like a jazz saxophonist giddily improvising variations on a theme.
And when listening to any skilled jazz player, it is important to concentrate on the specific notes in any sequence. (The musical metaphor is not original to me: Olding herself writes in a similar vein, “If words were bees, they’d dance.”) Olding is a master at extended riffs on a subject — taking a particular theme, like libraries or the nature of artistic self-doubt — and extending it in interesting and unexpected directions. An examination of the Hogarth series includes allusions to a garden rake, a croupier’s rake, the rake as an 18th-century rogue and an emaciated person described as being “thin as a rake.” In some cases, this can be applied a bit too thickly, as in the essay on lymphoma and blood typing, in which a series of paragraphs ends with blood-related idioms (“I had blood on my hands”; “my blood would boil”; “like trying to wring blood from a stone”).
But all of this testifies to Olding’s enthusiastic style and, not insignificantly, her apparent joy in linguistic play, which is a welcome asset in a book about the nature and utility of reading as a means of understanding the world outside of books. Olding’s improvisatory approach offers not simply a justification for a reading life, but an examination of the multifarious pleasures, provocations and comforts such a life can offer.