Ballard and the Experience of Reading

Ballard - DroughtThere’s a well established industry in giving the context to how books are written. It’s perhaps surprising how little attention is given to how books are read. There is a strand of literary criticism that emphasises ‘the role of the reader’, something which emerged from the late-1970s, notably from Barthes and Foucault, as a component to the ‘death of the author’. This standard for studies in communications and media is, however, often a trotted-out abstraction to give enough quotes to show awareness of canonical theory books. ‘Authorship is completed by the reader’ – what might an example of the trope look like? I wondered this as I thought about the manifold contexts in which I’ve just read J G Ballard’s The Drought.

The novel dramatises a world in which a film of human-made gunk has formed on the oceans and stopped them from evaporating to form clouds and rain. I started reading it while commuting. This seems a typically Ballardian setting. It seemed unlikely that my early morning rural travel companions were familiar with the way that Ballard showed what everything we take for granted might look like when falling to pieces. The very reliability of a bus; the descent into animality that’s an infrastructural collapse away – all of this insulated from them as they listened to their downloads, or stared out of the window to go over insecurities that could be luxurious when compared to Ballard’s thought experiments in the unthinkable.

Ballard - SundaeBy the weekend I had ventured to the beach. After a tiring first week in my new job, I decided that I needed to get more exercise to help not only with my health in general, but also to make the week’s demands more doable. Soon I was reading about Ballard’s protagonists surviving along a coastline that moved further from the land as the sea receded in drought. I thought about order as a species of disorder. Then a code mod for the AI in my writing software just popped into my head. Ballard’s collaged landscapes are a part of my daydreams about cutting up worlds made of words in order to reassemble them with code into alien worlds that seem oddly familiar. I moved on from this to a nut sundae. Then I watched normality unfolding at the seaside. Wet children shivered under towels. Dogs excitedly chased tennis balls and each other.

Ballard - Woodland

Ballard - CasualtyBy Sunday, I took a diversion on a woodland walk to have a pee. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Unfortunately, as I found a discreet spot, I fell backwards into thorny undergrowth. I twisted away from it as I landed. Walking away from the scene, I just knew something was wrong. I cut the walk short and my partner helped me get to the general hospital. This bus journey saw me as a spectacle. I was a stranger walking in unspecified distress. The casualty department whisked me in as a priority patient – suspected spinal. Ballard - TerminalA team of 3 staff manoeuvred me for inspections, causing the kinds of noises from me that you hear from survivors of car crashes on TV documentaries. I continued with my copy of The Drought as I was sedated, tested and then X-rayed.

I managed to finish the book today. My memory of it is fragmented by the Codeine and Diazepam in my drug cocktail  My attempts to write this post were fragmented into bouts of alternately sitting and pacing as I tried to get fit to return to work and, yes, that normality again. How desirable its absence makes it. So my context of reading The Drought can be described similarly to its back-cover puff: ‘surrealist flourishes only heighten the atmosphere’ (Guardian). I think of this surrealism as a set of themes that form a kind of poetry that resembles a list. How do I understand the sequence of events surrounding the book’s reading without trying to structure them? Ballard - InterviewsAnd then – ‘His fantasies are explored with a maniac’s logic’ (New Statesman). I think back to my list of tips for writing a Ballard novel. Ballard himself had lists, collecting materials so he could organise the modern world only to destroy it in his fiction. As a rejoinder to the context industry for writing, maybe there could be accounts of reading contexts like the above – interviews with readers of a specific author.

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4 Responses to Ballard and the Experience of Reading

  1. It sounds like you had quite a time reading this book (hope the spine is ok…) and I can imagine that your response to it would be very different had you simply read it over the course of a couple of evenings in an armchair. I think you’re right that the context of the reading of a book can often make a great difference to the effect it has on us.

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    • Jeff says:

      I would love to spend an evening in an armchair right now! But I have euphoria tablets and my plan of activities to get back to life by next week.
      I found the surroundings for reading The Drought rather Ballardian, especially the hospital. Don’t we normally have memories of the circumstances in which certain books are read anyway? I remember some books in terms of the circumstances in which they were read. What motivated my post was the idea that there are sometimes stories that surround the reading of stories. So I wonder, for example, what a book might be like if it told stories of people’s lives during their read of, say, To the Lighthouse, or The Castle.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    I hope you’re improving. I’ve been ill (still am but improving) recently and it not only affects the way one reads but what one reads. Even when I can’t remember much about a book’s contents I can often remember what I thought of it or why I chose to read it or state of health at the time etc. e.g. A few years ago I was reading Proust whingeing about not getting a good night’s kiss from his mother whilst I was in agony lying on the floor with backache.

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    • Jeff says:

      There must be, I suppose, a lot of reading that occurs during recuperation. It’s awkward in my case because I’m under instruction to keep active and not sit or lie down for long. My job involves sitting all day so I’m off this week. Oh, and I’m on euphoric pills, which make the relentless checking in my job also out of the question – let alone sustained reading. What I’ll remember is trying to read while pacing about. I suspect that I’d be in agony reading Proust under any circumstances. He sounds the sort of pushover who’d have trouble recovering from anything.

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