How to Read a Book
Kelly Ana Morey
Awa Press, $24.95,
How to Look at a Picture
Awa Press, $24.95,
Second-rate fiction, someone said, is utterly useless. A poor novel or short story gets us nowhere, whereas even third-rate non-fiction will often tell us something we want to know, and is nearly always better than no book at all on the subject. Disturbing news for novelists, but a good point, I always thought. Until I started reading one of the latest two offerings in Awa Press’s Ginger Series. For the life of me, I couldn’t see the use of Kelly Ana Morey’s How to Read a Book. I read on, increasingly bewildered by what she thought she was telling (and not telling) me and why she thought I wanted or needed to know it. Its real value didn’t dawn on me until I finished reading its companion, Justin Paton’s How to Look at a Painting.
The predecessors of these two have been less traditional how-to books than personal essays. Which is to say that any information, instruction or argument – on how to watch rugby, listen to pop music or catch a fish – has come laced with memoir and anecdote, straight from the mouth of a first-person singular who, right from page one, strikes up a cheerful relationship with the reader. By and large, it’s been voice that has made these little books so worthwhile: these ‘I’s are good company. You want to know what they know, but you also want to know who they are. Anyone can buy or borrow a copy of The Beginner’s Guide to Quaffing Wine or The Night Sky for Dummies, and absorb what’s dished out by invisible know-it-alls. The Awa series has given writers the opportunity not just to air their knowledge but to stretch their writing legs. And in doing so, has given the more consciously literary Four Winds essay series a run for its money.
Justin Paton launches How to Look at a Painting with a vignette about the “art room” in the house in which he grew up. The walls were covered with “what-the-hell abandon” by his grandmother’s paintings – hydrangeas and magnolias, turnips and sneakers, a rat in a trap. Also in the room were pottery gnomes, beach towels, a trunk of photos and diaries accompanied by a knuckleduster, and a pot of Slime with Worms. The point of the room was that, in it, the Paton siblings could do anything – build a fort, run a Biro tattoo parlour. Anything that wasn’t sensible. The point of it for Paton now is that his book is “a tale in praise of the art room and its contents”.
“The art room that matters most exists in memory. This is where you hang the paintings that changed you,” he says. And so, he maintains, you should look not for paintings that will impress or match the curtains or increase in value, but those worthy of being hung on the walls of your imagination. Thus, in a few deft pages, Paton introduces both his subject and himself, this wisp of memoir opening the book because Paton wants us to engage as passionately with his subject as he does. Everything that follows is engagingly designed to the same end.
He scrutinises an ancestral portrait and tells us about its execution, visits artists’ studios, takes us on a tour of Auckland galleries and discusses what he sees there. He dissects Artspeak, which relies on words like “problematise” to “flash friendship signals at other problematisers”. He is humorous, suggesting that “Art Writing New Zealanders Love would be a skinny book indeed”, and dividing gallery-goers into the Suddenlys, who want instant epiphany, and the Slowlys, of whom he’s one, and who take their time. He’s beside us all the way because he wants to show us how to see beyond him, through him; and he manages this without ever getting in our way.
His book is a cry from the heart:
In a world characterised by a lot of din and rush …, one of the best reasons for looking at paintings is the stillness and silence they emit. Painting is not stadium rock, pay-per-view television, edutainment or infotainment. It’s not Scientology, Sociology or Semiology. It’s not supplied by a vertically integrated corporate entertainment provider, or about to be turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise. Instead, it’s a realm of modestly scaled, quiet objects usually made by one person and designed to be seen by one person at a time…. In good hands, it is still one of the best ways we have for looking at the world afresh.
But it’s a cry from the heart uttered by someone who never loses his head. Kelly Ana Morey’s How to Read a Book comes as a startling contrast: she shows worrying signs of having had her own head turned, if not entirely mislaid. Some believe Lydia Wever’s contribution to the Four Winds series, On Reading, to be the last word on the subject, and this is the only occasion so far that Winds and Ginger have overlapped. Which is not, of course, to say that the Morey book was a mistake. Not, at least, in the conception.
Morey achieved overnight stardom when Bloom won Best First Book of Fiction in the 2004 Montana New Zealand Books Awards, which, these days, seems to herald a writer not so much on their way but as having arrived and already being streets ahead of the field. Not surprising, then, that Awa would back Morey for a 100 or so pages on How to Read a Book. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if the author’s acknowledgement to her publisher/editor – for having “worked harder than any publisher/editor ever should on this book” – was unwitting evidence that Awa came to regret its good idea.
The book is superficial, self-satisfied and tedious. It has – in spite of the editor/publisher’s hard work – a knocked-off feel. There are lists – of authors Morey thinks she should have read but hasn’t, authors she has read but thinks she shouldn’t have, and authors she thinks we ought to read (but, now she’s mentioned them, probably don’t want to). There’s a history of 20th century literature in English reduced to several less-than-glittering pages – “Meanwhile, in Ireland, James Joyce ….” There are many less-than-riveting assertions – “I love books. So very much. Not just the words, but the books themselves. I like their physical manifestation, the way they look and feel and smell”. Gosh, really?
But she soon gets bored with reading and turns to writing, her writing: her novels, her successes, her reviews, her career building – “I knew I was going to have to punch out another book within a year of the first if I were to establish a presence” – none of it discussed in any way that benefits the reader, let alone justifies the title of the book. And when she runs completely out of steam, she “punches out” a reading diary – sample entry: “3 July Back to Atwood’s Surfacing. Very nice. I do like Canadians.” The whole thing is delivered in a style that sets your teeth on edge, and that you can’t help feeling is meant to showcase Morey’s whacky zany free-spirited approach to life, the universe, writing books and everything.
So what use is this second-rate piece of non-fiction? The fact that it stands at the opposite end of the essay-writing pole from Paton’s. His passion is painting, and he uses the book’s first person singular – its anecdotes, experience and observations – to focus attention on the object of his passion. On the evidence of her book, Morey’s passion is herself: her ‘I’ takes centre stage where it never stops showing off, and making it damned hard to see or hear anything else. A perfect example of How Not to Write an Essay.
Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books.