Toronto Star

A reader’s guide to understand­ing the world

- STEVEN BEATTIE Steven W. Beattie is a writer in Toronto.

“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.

 ??  ?? “Big Reader: Essays,” by Susan Olding, Freehand Press, 300 pages, $22.95
“Big Reader: Essays,” by Susan Olding, Freehand Press, 300 pages, $22.95
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