Leisurely Pleasure | The Nation


Leisurely Pleasure

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Newspaper advertisements seduce some of us into taking all kinds of speed-reading courses: In return for a small fee, we are promised that we will be taught how to save valuable time, how to read five pages per minute, how to scan the page horizontally, how to skip the details and to reach the bottom line speedily. Yet we might be better served by a course in slow reading: The pleasures of reading, like other delights, should be consumed in small sips.

This brief essay is taken from the latest book by Amos Oz, The Story Begins: Essays on Literature (Harcourt Brace).

About the Author

Amos Oz
Amos Oz, whose The Same Sea has recently been published in the United States, is one of Israel's leading novelists and...

Also by the Author

Two Palestinian-Israeli wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation's war for its freedom from occupation and for its right to independent statehood. Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged by fanatical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person ought to abhor this cause.

Yasir Arafat and his men are running both wars simultaneously, pretending they are one. The suicide killers evidently make no distinction. Much of the worldwide bafflement about the Middle East, much of the confusion among the Israelis themselves, stems from the overlap between these two wars. Decent peace seekers, in Israel and elsewhere, are often drawn into simplistic positions. They either defend Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by claiming that Israel has been targeted by Muslim holy war ever since its foundation in 1948, or else they vilify Israel on the grounds that nothing but the occupation prevents a just and lasting peace. One simplistic argument allows Palestinians to kill all Israelis on the basis of their natural right to resist occupation. An equally simplistic counterargument allows Israelis to oppress all Palestinians because an all-out Islamic jihad has been launched against them.

Two wars are being fought in this region. One is a just war, and the other is both unjust and futile.

Israel must step down from the war on the Palestinian territories. It must begin to end occupation and evacuate the Jewish settlements that were deliberately thrust into the depths of Palestinian lands. Its borders must be drawn, unilaterally if need be, upon the logic of demography and the moral imperative to withdraw from governing a hostile population.

But would an end to occupation terminate the Muslim holy war against Israel? This is hard to predict. If jihad comes to an end, both sides would be able to sit down and negotiate peace. If it does not, we would have to seal and fortify Israel's logical border, the demographic border, and keep fighting for our lives against fanatical Islam.

If, despite simplistic visions, the end of occupation will not result in peace, at least we will have one war to fight rather than two. Not a war for our full occupancy of the holy land, but a war for our right to live in a free and sovereign Jewish state in part of that land. A just war, a no-alternative war. A war we will win. Like any people who were ever forced to fight for their very homes and freedom and lives.


Translated by Fania Oz-Salzberger.

Arad, where I live, is a small, out-of-the-way town in the Negev desert, in southern Israel. There are Jews and Arabs living here, but so far it has been surprisingly quiet. Not very quiet for myself though, as I happen to be the town's famous "leftist" or "Arab-lover." It was almost natural that as I walked down the local mall near the main square yesterday, some strangers were angrily shouting at me: "You are to blame," or "Do you still trust your Arabs?" In particular the voices came from some of the patrons of a street cafe, so I sat myself down, ready to listen.

There was an elderly man, rather gentle, with a musician's fingers, who said to me, "Look what you leftists have done to Israel by making the Oslo agreements with Arafat seven years ago. You gave him land for a promise. For a piece of paper. He committed himself to renouncing violence and to sorting out future differences through negotiations. But why should he renounce violence when violence always yields him a dividend? Each time there is a burst of Palestinian violence the whole world puts pressure on Israel to make more concessions. You yourself," he said, "advised Mr. Peres to travel all over the world to collect billions of dollars for the Palestinian Authority. With this money they purchased the weapons and the bullets which they are now shooting at us."

An attractive woman of about 40, with a slight Russian accent, intervened, saying, "Like yourself, I voted for Ehud Barak in the last elections because I want peace. I still want peace, but next time I will vote for Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Sharon. The history of recent years tells us that the Arabs have made an honorable agreement with the right-wing Mr. Begin, with the hard-line Mr. Shamir and with the extremist Mr. Netanyahu, whereas doves such as Rabin, Peres and Barak--all they get from the Arabs are the car bombs, the exploding buses and the lynchings."

There was a third voice, young, extremely polite, seemingly an Oriental Jew, who smiled at me and said, "Let's not waste our time. This conference in Egypt is totally useless. Arafat can no longer control the fundamentalist frenzy of violence which he himself perpetrated, whereas Barak can no longer negotiate because the Israeli Jews have lost confidence in his peace policy. Arafat and Barak may not know it, but they are both finished."

I asked, "So what is going to happen?"

From the four corners of the coffee shop people said, More fighting, more violence, more bloodshed. One of them even added, "And you are also finished, Mr. Oz. We will never listen to you again if you advocate a compromise with the Palestinians."

I said, "And what will happen if we don't compromise?"

A woman said, "There will be more violence."

I said, "And what after the further violence?"

Everybody said, "Finally there will be an agreement."

"Between whom and whom?"

"Between Israel and a Palestinian state, of course."

I just nodded. I was going to pay for my coffee and go. But those people refused to let me pay for my coffee. They paid for me. They insisted.

©Amos Oz 2000.

Once, when we were in sixth or seventh grade, the school nurse entered our classroom, heroically enclosed herself with thirty boys and exposed the facts of life. This nurse was amazingly daring; she fearlessly showed us systems and their functions, drew on the blackboard maps of the reproductive plumbing, described all the physical equipment and clarified all the attachments. She spared us nothing, eggs and sperm, membranes and mechanics. She then went on to give us the real horror show, chilling our blood with descriptions of the twin monsters lying at the gates of sex: Pregnancy and Venereal Disease. Stunned and cowed, we left the classroom two hours later. The child I was then understood, more or less, what was supposed to go into where and what was supposed to receive what, and what sort of awful disasters could befall me, but that child had no understanding of why any sane person would want to get caught in this dragon's lair in the first place. It turned out that the energetic nurse, who had no hesitation about revealing every last detail, from hormones to glands, nonetheless skipped over a marginal detail: She did not tell us, did not even hint, that these complex procedures entailed, at least occasionally, some pleasure. Perhaps she thought that in not doing so, she would make our innocent young lives safer. Perhaps she had no idea.

And this is precisely what some of the literati are doing to us: They analyze everything ad nauseam, techniques, motifs, oxymorons and metonyms, allegory and connotation, hidden Jewish allusions, latent psychological keys and sociological implications, and archetypal characters and fateful ideas and whatnot. Only the pleasure of reading do they castrate--just a bit--so it doesn't get in the way; so that we remember that literature is not playing games, and, in general, that life is no picnic.

Yet Gogol's nose and Yizhar's orange hue and the cow on the balcony and Yaakov Shabtai's uncles, and even Kafka's diabolical horses--all of them, in addition to providing the well-known delicatessen of education, information and so on, lure us into a world of pleasures and joyous games. In every one of these stories we are permitted something that is not allowed "outside": not just a reflection of our familiar world and not just a journey into the unknown but also the very fascination with touching the "inconceivable." Whereas, inside a story, it becomes conceivable, accessible to our senses and our fears, to our imagination and our passions.

The game of reading requires you, the reader, to take an active part, to bring to the field your ` 3*3*. The opening contracts are sometimes hide-and-seek and sometimes Simon says and sometimes more like a game of chess. Or poker. Or a crossword puzzle. Or a prank. Or an invitation into a maze. Or an invitation to dance. Or a mocking courtship that promises but does not deliver, or delivers the wrong goods, or delivers what it had never promised or delivers just a promise.

And ultimately, like any contract, if you do not read the fine print you may be taken for a ride; but sometimes you may be taken for a ride precisely by getting bogged down in the fine print and failing to see the forest for the trees.

Every day, my mailbox drowns in invitations to lecture before all sorts of conferences and symposiums about "The Image of the Israeli-Arab Conflict in Literature" or "The Reflection of the Nation in the Novel" or "Literature as a Mirror of Society." But if all you want is to look in a mirror, why read books?

Once upon a time, on a nudist beach, I saw a man sitting, naked, delightedly engrossed in an issue of Playboy. Just like that man, on the inside, not on the outside, is where the good reader ought to be while reading.

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