Leisurely Pleasure

Leisurely Pleasure

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


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.

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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