LIKE WRITING A MUSICAL SCORE: THE UNACKNOWLEDGED TASK OF THE SCREENWRITER

I came across the name Lola Salvador Maldonado in a recent episode of Días de Cine, the weekly report on cinema that TVE maintains since 1991 on La2 (http://www.rtve.es/television/dias-cine/). The occasion was her 81st birthday and the celebration of her extensive career in Spanish cinema, for which she was awarded the Premio Nacional de Cinematografía in 2014, and which she still continues. Surprised by Lola Salvador’s many activities in this art and, above all, by her immense achievement as a screenwriter, I sought bibliography about her. I soon came across Susana Díaz’s Modos de Mostrar: Encuentros con Lola Salvador (2012, http://tecmerin.es/no-2-lola-salvador/), a delicious publication which sums up many hours of interviews with this exceptional woman. It is hard to say what is more singular about Lola Salvador: that she managed to build a solid career in cinema at a time when relatively few women worked in that area in Spain (excepting actresses), or that she did so leading besides a peculiar life as a separated mother in a long relationship with a married man (producer Alfredo Matas) while enjoying a friendship with his wife (actress Amparo Soler Leal) and collaborating with both professionally. Reading Díaz’s juicy text, it seems that Lola Salvador has lived not one but several lives simultaneously.

On the Días de Cine report, Lola Maldonado described the screenplay as a text quite similar to a play or, even better, to a musical score. She seems to prefer this second description, repeated in the interview with Díaz. Following that analogy, the film director works, Lola notes, like an orchestra director adding harmony to the performance of the diverse musicians. By the way: if my reader does not mind, I’d rather refer to Lola by her first name, since using the surname Salvador makes her appear to be a man. In fact, she has used the penname Salvador Maldonado to publish autobiographical novels (the trilogy El Olivar de Atocha adapted by TVE is based on her family) and others based on her scripts (see below).

That a screenwriter like Lola needs to highlight the similarities between screenplays and stage plays may be baffling, but it needs to be noted that the Spanish word ‘guión’ (or ‘guion’ as RAE prefers since 2010) has nothing to do with ‘obra’ (stage play). I have been unable to determine why ‘guión’ became the preferred word in Spanish, beyond the obvious fact that early producers must have regarded the ‘script’ as a ‘guide’, hence ‘guión’ (but why not ‘guía’?). At any rate the semantic confusion is also notable in English: the texts on which films are based are called ‘scripts’ and ‘screenplays’ and those who write them are ‘scriptwriters’, ‘screen playwrights’, ‘screenplay writers’, or ‘screenwriters’. At least in English, there is a clear suggestion that those who build the scripts are writers working on something rather similar to plays. Incidentally, American silent film produced Thomas Harper Ince (1880-1924), founder of the first studio that can be described as such, Inceville, is credited with being the inventor of the screenplay. If I interpret his many writing credits at IMDB correctly, the word scenario, imported from French, was used before script or screenplay appeared.

Back to Lola, you might be familiar with the enormous scandal caused by El Crimen de Cuenca (1979), the film directed by Pilar Miró, and based on a serious miscarriage of justice back in 1910. Two peasants in a village of the province of Cuenca were sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of a shepherd, who had gone missing. As the film explained in all its gory detail, the two accused had been tortured by the Guardia Civil and produced in this way false confessions. Even though the real-life events depicted in the film had happened 70 years before, the then Minister of Culture Ricardo de la Cierva left the film in the hands of military justice, which processed Miró for offenses to the Guardia Civil (a military body) and retained her film for 18 months until the Tribunal Supremo decreed it should be shown in cinemas. The case against Miró was dropped and her film, the only one censored in this away after the end of Franco’s regime in supposedly democratic times, was released to great critical acclaim and notable box-office success, just the opposite of what the authorities had tried to prevent.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because even though Miró bore the brunt of the scandal and endured much personal suffering, she also reaped merits that were not hers: producer Alfredo Matas had hired Miró to work on a script by Lola, also the author as Salvador Maldonado of the 1979 best-selling novel based on the Cuenca crime (Ramon J. Sender had published in 1939 on the same case El Lugar de un Hombre). Miró got a script credit as well for the film, to increase her earnings (a habitual practice, it seems), but the whole idea was from the beginning Lola’s (see Díaz 72-84). You might say that she and Matas, and not Miró, should have indicted by military justice, but this is not my point: everyone came to know Miró por her boldness in dealing with torture on the screen, but few connect Lola with El Crimen de Cuenca. This is like attributing the whole merit of, say, the film Hamlet (1996) to director Kenneth Branagh, without mentioning Shakespeare (he does appear in the credits as screenwriter…).

To put it plainly, neither films nor TV series can be made without a screenplay but both directors and producers tend to downplay as much as they can the role of the writer. I include myself among the film lovers who are totally unable to mention a favourite screen writer, even though I can certainly mention favourite authors in all other literary genres. Yes: literary genres. As theatre specialist Martin Esslin has explained, the script is a branch of the tree of drama, with the peculiarity that whereas plays are written to be staged as many times as possible the screenplay is used in just one production, for this is filmed. To those who object that screenplays can hardly be read as plays, I would reply that this is not true: the conventions may be different (there are all kinds of technical regulations about the look of screenplays on the page) but the essence is the same one –both are dramatic texts to be performed by actors. And if the screenplay is still struggling for literary recognition, this is because it is a type of writing open to constant interference by studio executives, producers, directors and actors for control of the final film. When a writer sells a screenplay, s/he does sell that right to interfere, which no other writer is forced to sell. Just imagine!

Logically, the best way to guarantee the control over your screenplays is to be also the film director but this is not a road all writers can take or care to take. In the theatre, few playwrights also work as directors, for there is a clear understanding of what each job consists of. Not so in movies, or in series (or in videogames and documentaries, which also use scripts). Check, as an example of the situation I am describing, Vulture’s list “The 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time, As Chosen by Working Screenwriters” (2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/10/100-greatest-screenwriters-of-all-time-ranked.html), edited by Stacey Wilson Hunt, and you will see that most names correspond to film directors.

At this point whenever I write or lecture about this issue I like to run a little test: a) who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, adapted from Thomas Kenneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark?; b) who wrote the script for Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise? Answer a) Steve Zaillian (currently a film director) and answer b) Callie Khouri (with also some credits as director). In case a) Spielberg got all the merit, being who he is (well, Zaillian got an Oscar); and in case b) that was even worse, for Scott was credited with showing a fine understanding of the dynamics of female friendship and few recalled in the ensuing feminist debate about his film the name of Callie Khouri (at least she got and Oscar for her efforts, and is among the few women included in the Vulture list). Arguably, the cases of Callie Khouri and Lola Salvador Maldonado suggest that there is something even worse than being a screen playwright to be acknowledged as a talented writer: being a woman screen playwright (or a non-white male heterosexual screenwriter…).

Julia Sabina Gutiérrez argues in her article “El guión cinematográfico: su escritura y su estatuto artístico” (SIGNA, 27, 2018, 523-539) that “El estatuto artístico del guion todavía no ha sido bien definido ni por los teóricos ni por los propios profesionales del audiovisual” (524), hinting at a certain failure on the side of the writers themselves to defend their work. She also notes that the tasks contributing to the creation of the screenplay have been increasingly fragmented, a fact which is possibly most visible (I would add) in animated cinema. Thus, writing recently on Trolls (2016), I could not determine at all what aspects of the plot had been the invention of Erica Rivinoja, credited on IMDB for the story (the script is credited to Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger). Besides, as the beautiful volume about the artwork in this film notes, some interesting turns had been contributed by the animators. As Gutiérrez points out, even in the cases in which the screenplay has been published, there may be differences with what appears on the film which are impossible to account for.

It appears, then, that the question at stake is authorship, or, rather, the extremely questionable application of this literary concept to audiovisual work, which is by nature a collaborative effort. As the author of the novel called El Crimen de Cuenca Lola Salvador can be certainly called a writer, but as the author of the eponymous script, what is she? For all purposes, including censorship, the author of the film El Crimen de Cuenca is the late Pilar Miró, even though the idea for the film did not originate with her at all but with Lola, who developed it together with the producer. In fact, producers are acknowledged above anyone else when the awards to the main films are given, whether these are the Oscars or any other. That there is a separate category for the director should be sufficient evidence for audiences to understand that directing a film is, as Lola stresses, like directing an orchestra but by no means like composing the music. I very much doubt that Zubin Mehta or any other outstanding director feels that s/he is above the composers whose work the orchestra plays.

So, to sum up, and once again: do try to remember the writers behind the films that you love, and let’s change for good their status as unacknowledged authors.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TIME AND J.B. PRIESTLEY: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

It seems that I have started this academic year in a metaphysical vein, concerned about time. Now it’s the turn of John Boynton Priestley’s suggestive play I Have Been Here Before (1937), which I have just seen in La Perla29’s effective production. Directed by Sergi Belbel, using Martí Gallén’s very good Catalan version, Priestley’s play necessarily loses some nuances in translation, such as the distinctive Yorkshire accents of the rural inn where the action takes place. This is inevitable (happily, there was no question of adapting the setting to Catalonia) but I am a tad less happy with the title Això ja ho he viscut (‘I have lived this before’) because, if I am not mistaken, Priestley alludes to a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in his own original title. I mean ‘Sudden Light’, written possibly in 1854 but first published in 1863. Here it is:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turn’d so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

This is the exact topic of the play: the possibility that our lives are somehow lived again and again and what we call déjà vu may be a glimpse into another version of the same events.

J.B. Priestly (1894-1984), a native of Yorkshire, first became quite famous thanks to a quintessentially English novel, The Good Companions (1929), of which there are several stage, film, TV, and radio adaptations. He wrote many other novels though never as successfully, including some in collaboration. Beginning with Dangerous Corner (1932), Priestly also wrote about twenty plays, among which Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945) are considered to be his best. These three plays, together with I Have Been Here Before and some others such as Johnson over Jordan, are known collectively as the ‘Time Plays’ because of the centrality of this question in them. Priestley, a marvellous graphomaniac, also wrote plenty of essays, among which I would highlight The English (1973). For a short spell during World War II (before the advent of television and when radio was paramount), Priestley was the most popular BBC broadcaster after Winston Churchill. Rumour claims that Churchill grew jealous and managed to have Priestley’s Sunday evening series Postscripts (which ran for a few months in 1940) cancelled, on the grounds that the content was too left-wing.

I saw Time and the Conways in 1992, in the Catalan-language production directed by Mario Gas, later filmed and broadcast by TV3 (in 1993). I subsequently taught the play within our first-year introduction to 20th century English Literature, though I would agree that its melancholy tone is not something that eighteen-year-olds can easily enjoy. I loved it, anyway. In 2011 I saw another Catalan-language version of Priestly, this time An Inspector Calls, as Truca un inspector, with the great Josep Maria Pou as Inspector Goole (‘ghoul’ indeed…). Pou also directed this production. I saw then as well a 1982 version of the original play made for TV, which is still available on YouTube, and which I recommend very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuHvGPpq8TM. I was back then teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and published here a post speculating about whether the missing Eva in Priestley’s play could have been known to Eliza Doolittle, or be Eliza herself without Prof. Higgins (see http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/21/eva-and-eliza-mirror-images/).

Everyone who writes about the Time Plays necessarily mentions the two singular men who inspired Priestley with his own view of time. One was Russian-Ukranian esotericist Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii (better known as Peter D. Ouspensky). His volume A New Model of the Universe, originally written in Russian and translated in 1931 by R.R. Merton (for Routledge!), was an instant success. It caught Priestley’s attention and that of many other British readers. The text is here, if you care to take a peek: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.234054. Ouspensky (1878-1947) belongs in the same esoteric circles as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and his own master George Gurdjieff (1877?-1949), men inspired by the success of Madame Blavatsky’s (1831-91) Theosophical Society (founded 1875). The other main text that influenced Priestley was An Experiment with Time (1927) by J.B. Dunne (1875-1949), which seemingly describes Dunne’s own precognitive dreams and ‘serialism’, the theory of time that Priestley borrowed for I Have Been Here Before. Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and a philosopher, enjoyed a much higher credibility than occultist Ouspensky but his does not mean that his theories have been in any way validated by scientific research.

As I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, both Ouspensky and Dunne wrote their books following the development of Quantum Mechanics, from 1900 onward. Priestley may not have known about Niels Bohr, Max Planck, or Albert Einstein but he was shaping in his Time Plays a view of existence that is not so different from current views of the multiverse based on Quantum Theory. I must confess that I seem to be, like most of us, stuck in a backward Newtonian understanding of physics and have not managed to grasp Quantum Mechanics beyond what I read in science fiction. I think, however, that Priestley’s peculiar plays still work well in 2019 because, even though Ouspensky and Dunne mean nothing to contemporary audiences, we are increasingly familiar with the idea that ours is just one universe among many other versions of the multiverse.

In I Have Been Here Before Dr. Görtler, a German-Jewish refugee in Britain who has lost everything to persecution by his own university students (implicitly Nazi sympathisers), arrives in the inn I have mentioned expecting to meet three strangers whose lives are heading for disaster. Görtler has had a dream in which he has seen the dire consequences of the decisions these three persons are about to make, and he needs to divert them from that specific path so that they may take a better one. Görtler’s dream is not a prophecy but, following Dunne, a memory of the version of his life in which disaster strikes. Also following Dunne, Priestley considers the idea that if, like Görtler, you train yourself to pay heed to your dreams, perhaps life can be better understood, and its worst events avoided if not in this life at least next time around.

Both Dunne and Görtler suppose that life is serial, that is to say, that you (or your soul if you prefer) are playing out a script that is repeated again and again each time you are born, and, hopefully, improved on. Not so in the case of dark souls bent on destructive ways. This is not quite the same as the idea of the multiverse, which supposes that infinite versions of the existing universe, including our own personal life, are happening simultaneously though with variations. Both theories make me extremely nervous, even more than Christian Heaven and Hell, but what I like about the Time Plays is that they invite me to think about the possibility that there is indeed a (loose) script in our lives, which might explain recognition. Let me explain…

In the play itself, Dr Görtler refers to déjà vu as an effect caused by the temporary dissociation of the two hemispheres of the brain. Current science still goes in that direction, connecting besides this phenomenon with forgotten memories recalled from dreams. What I am arguing is that science has insufficient knowledge of both dreams and déjà vu. Typically, all kinds of esoteric nonsense step in whenever science makes insufficiently convincing claims, trying to mask its ignorance, but I am not backing here the paranormal. Priestley forces me to think about events that are strange but that do happen in our lives, mainly that clear impression that you already know some person you have just met. Or the chill you get when you know that the words which you’re about to say will introduce a turning point in your own life or that of your interlocutor. As for dreams, I do not believe that they have prophetic value in a magical sense, or even in the far more ordinary sense that Dunne defended (as if they were a preview of the next episode in your life). What I do know is that Freud was very wrong about how they work and that finding symbolic language in them is nonsense. Dreams process everyday life at another level. Or perhaps the other way around. Some mornings I wake up thinking that maybe dreams are the real deal and our waking lives just the secondary part of our existence.

At a scene at the end of act I in I Have Been Here Before Dr Görtler explains that he has been studying his own dreams in the hopes of answering two questions: ‘what we are supposed to be doing here?’ and ‘what the Devil this is all about?’ Religion offers, of course, a ready-made answer: God knows, even though we don’t. For us, atheists, the problem is that science is somehow an obstacle to investigate other answers beyond ‘we’re the result of a random series of events’. This lazy answer allows the cult of the paranormal to grow with no rational check so that some individuals end up acting more absurdly than if they were believers. I am not saying that we should grow as obsessed as Dr Görtler with our own dreams and with the alleged seriality of time, nor that we should be paralyzed by the fear that strikes if you stop to consider why we are alive at all. What I mean is that, now and then, we should acknowledge that life is a very strange affair and that we, Homo Sapiens, are very odd creatures, dominated by that bizarre need for sleep and dream.

That’s what I enjoy most about Priestley’s Time Plays: the bold proposition that if we really tried to explain what life is about, we might reach unexpected conclusions. It is a bit scary but, then, the idea of life is scary in its weirdness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHEN DID THE FUTURE DIE? SCATTERED THOUGHTS ON PALEOFUTURISM AND UTOPIA

Sharing coffee with a friend who also loves science fiction, we end up wondering when the idea of the future died. The media have entered a phase which I can only call ‘punk’ (after the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit song ‘No Future’), for its intense focus on the oncoming climate-change related apocalypse. Perhaps not oncoming but already happening, as the brutal hurricanes in the Caribbean and the devastating floods here in Spain suggest. For the younger generations, like our university students, the perception that the world is doomed and the future fast shrinking must be commonplace; it might explain their presentism and their reluctance to believe in making plans long-term. But for those of us old enough to have been children between the 1950s and the 1970s, the impression is that we have been robbed of a better version of the future which we had been promised, above all by science and its fantasy branch, science fiction.

Commenting on this conversation with my husband, he played for me the delicious official video for Pet Shop Boys’ “This Used to Be the Future” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As5vxxiPRUM). This great song, in which Neil Tennant sings with Phil Oakey (lead singer of The Human League), was released back in 2009, as part of the highly acclaimed double CD Yes. And, yes, it encapsulates to perfection what I feel but cannot articulate so succinctly.

The complete lyrics can be found here (https://petshopboys.co.uk/lyrics/this-used-to-be-the-future), just let me quote some stanzas: “I can recall utopian thinking/ bold mission statements and tightening of belts/ demolition of familiar landmarks/ promises made and deals that were dealt (…) / But that future was exciting / science fiction made fact / now all we have to look forward to/ is a sort of suicide pact”. The agents of destruction in the song are not rapacious capitalism and environmental catastrophe but religion and nuclear power. The Pet Shop Boys sing that “Science had promised to make us a new world / religion and prejudice disappear” and I suppose that many religious people feel offended hearing this; the fact, though, is that one of the promises of mid-20th century futurism was the disappearance of superstition in all its forms, swept away by science. As for prejudice, as my friend ironized, back in the 1970s the future used to be about constant progress in quality of life but all it has brought in the 21st century is Facebook and rampant online trolling.

Back to the song, these two lines sent a chill down my spine: “I can remember planning for leisure / living in peace and freedom from fear”, for I also remember that. The feeling was short-lived, starting in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and ending on 9/11 2001, with the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia which killed more than 3,000 people. I must spell this out because these tragic events happened already eighteen years ago, which means that the generation now reaching its majority (our first-year students) have no personal memories of them. This factor was the focus of the news around the commemoration this year, which also reported the steady trickle of deaths among first responders and reconstruction personnel caused by poisoning due to the toxic debris.

My friend argued that the future did not die on that day but earlier, with the capitalist alliance between Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989). In his view, their coordinated onslaught against public spending and their enthusiastic privatization of almost everything put an end to the big dreams that can only be financed without benefit in mind. I grant this, but I want to make the point that even so, in the long decade between 1989 and 2001, and specially during the mandate of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), there was a glimmer of hope. I do not forget the first Gulf War (1990-1), which happened during George Bush’s Presidency (1989-1993), but at least that horror belonged to a new climate in which mutually assured destruction (yes, known by the acronym MAD) using nuclear devices seemed over. Of course, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, now brought back to public awareness by HBO’s series, stressed that nuclear power for civilian uses can be as dangerous as nuclear weapons for military use. Yet, I should think that nobody is considering today starting a major nuclear war (I hope this is not the kind of statement that in hindsight will sound totally stupid).

For all these reasons, 9/11 was very difficult to understand at the time when it was happening. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, I spent the morning of 11 September 2001 at the cinema, making the most of the national Catalan holiday. My mind was still haunted by the ghosts of Alejandro Amenábar’s atmospheric Los Otros when I switched on the TV to watch the 15:00 news on the national Spanish channel, TVE. The attack was timed to make big news in the United States at 9:00 and I think now that possibly Spain must have been the first European country to broadcast it live, as it coincided with our Telediario.

I was standing up before the TV, trying to make sense of what presenter Ana Blanco was describing as an accident, after the first plane crashed. By the time we all saw the second plane crash live, it was evident that this was no accident. My legs gave way and I found myself fallen on my sofa, physically scared as I have never been in my life. It was all so eerie and disconcerting that I expected Blanco to announce at any point that an alien invasion had started–that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) was happening in real life. Even when it was understood that two planes had been hijacked and used as weapons against the Towers (another one hit the Pentagon, and a fourth one crashed when the passage repelled the kidnapping), it was impossible to understand who and why had done it. Still to this day, every time I switch on the news, I brace myself for some world-shattering event like that one or worse.

In his 1998 version of Godzilla, Roland Emmerich–a German director obsessed with wrecking America on film–had already fantasized with the destruction of New York, offering images quite similar to those from 9/11. The first film he released after the attacks was, however, quite different and certainly worth watching again today. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) the villains that end the future as we hoped it would exist are not aliens, monsters, or terrorists but unbridled capitalism, the origin of the unrestrained pollution that starts a new Ice Age. Funnily, this is not global but a phenomenon that only destroys the United States and most of the Northern hemisphere, leaving then some hope for the rest of the world. The first film in the family-oriented franchise Ice Age had been launched two years before, in 2002, and I am now wondering whether this was part of the zeitgeist or a frivolous reaction to the first warnings issued by concerned scientists. Emmerich’s film, already fifteen years old, was, arguably, another nail in the coffin of the future killed by 9/11 or the beginning of the dystopian cycle trapping us today.

Searching for information on the Pet Shop Boys’ official video for “This Used to Be the Future”, which is an amazing montage of futuristic images from the 1950s and 1960s, I have come across the concept of paleofuturism (see https://paleofuture.com/ and https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/). This refers to the exploration of the ways in which the future was imagined in the past in order to check what has actually been developed and what has fallen into the limbo of the things never invented. A wonderful play by Joan Yago, currently on stage at Escenari Joan Brossa of Barcelona, and simply called The Future, uses paleofuturism in its opening section to stress how our need to imagine the future clashes with actual events. Yago’s play asks the same question as the Pet Shop Boys’ song but answers it with a slightly more optimistic attitude. If we cannot imagine utopia again, Yago warns, we’re lost. Homo Sapiens needs to look forward to a better life both individually and collectively for without some idea of progress we regress. This connects, oddly, with the new book by educator Andreu Navarra, Devaluación Continua, in which he warns that current trends in pedagogy and the pressure of the social networks are creating a new Middle Age in the classroom, meaning a generation of cyber-serfs that do not see beyond the day-to-day. This possibly has something to do with the serious lack of future engineers in our universities (as noted by Spanish newspapers last week) and, what is worse, with the lack of a greater vision for the world that can oppose the messianic plans of Elon Musk and company.

Perhaps, playwright Joan Yago hints, if we checked what the future looked like in the past in a paleofuturistic spirit, we might manage to build a new utopia. The problem, I think, is not only that, as my friend suggested, no public institution has the capacity to engage us in a positive collective future but that our energies are too occupied by the possibility of total disaster to think clearly. Greta Thunberg and her generation should not be using their youth to stop catastrophe but to continue working for a utopia that could have been established for good in 1989, if not before Thatcher and Reagan. I agree with Yago that if we told ourselves ‘this planet is going to be marvellous in two decades’ instead of ‘this planet is going to be dead in two decades’ the promise of a better future could perhaps be rebuilt. Or this is just me being nostalgic of what the future used to be.

Let’s give utopia a chance…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

‘READ, READ, READ AND THEN WHAT?’: GOOD QUESTION…

I’m beginning with this post the tenth year of this blog, started back in September 2010, with a certain feeling that blogging is already a thing of the past. As the yearly volumes accumulate (check https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328), I see how text-based online platforms give way to image-based platforms, with Instagram in the lead, already replacing Twitter in everyone’s preferences (the micro-blogging Tumblr is quite dead). I don’t know who reads me, or how many of you there are, for I refuse to check my statistics, and anyway, I keep this blog for my own personal satisfaction (and sanity). Whoever you are, you do get my most deeply felt thanks! One more thing: I’m teaching only one semester a year, thanks to my university’s fair and legal application of the 2012 Government decree to support research (popularly known as ‘Decreto Wert’). This is the reason why the blog offers currently fewer posts about teaching and more about reading (and writing). I have even considered altering the title, but I’ll let it be, though I think of it today as ‘The Joys of (Teaching) Literature’, still with the ironic sting in the tail.

Let’s begin. Reading this summer Susan Orlean’s non-fiction bestseller The Library Book (a beguiling account of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986), I was oddly impressed by a small scene. Incidentally, you may watch Orlean’s interview with Bel Olid on The Library Book at Barcelona’s recent Kosmopolis (last March) here: https://www.cccb.org/en/multimedia/videos/susan-orlean-and-bel-olid/231171. In the scene mentioned, Orlean meets a worker (a black middle-aged woman, though this is not much relevant), who spends eight hours a day packing and unpacking books. She tells a flabbergasted Orlean that she never reads any books for you ‘read, read, and read, and then what?’ This woman’s dismissal of reading caught me in the middle of an intense summer reading binge and truly shook me. What, indeed, am I doing reading so much? Even my fellow Literature teachers tell me that I read a lot… because, guess what?, even they prefer watching TV series, which I find unbearably boring. You ‘watch, watch, watch, and then what?’

Orlean’s candid interviewee apparently believes that reading has a purpose, a teleological function aimed at reaching a target. Naturally, this is only the case in higher education degrees, for, quite rightly, in English it is said that a person ‘reads’ to obtain a BA or MA (in Spanish we ‘study’). Apart from that, reading is a pleasurable habit which simply ends with death: possibly, the most adequate answer to this woman’s question is ‘and then you die’. She has, however, the intuition of something else. Why do people read at all during personal time which they could employ in many other activities? Several answers occur to me. To be able to claim that they have read this and that book, to enhance their experience of life by adding other persons’ experiences (whether real or fictional), to learn about whatever interests them. Fundamentally, out of curiosity and to feel brainy pleasure. It might well be that this woman’s life is so rich that she needn’t access other persons’ experiences (or that ink is a barrier to her in that sense); also, that she is satisfied enough with her knowledge and feels no urge to increase it. Fair enough, though, evidently, that she feels in this way surrounded by millions of books is chilling. Maybe she is overwhelmed by the riches in the Central Library, which are for others, like author Susan Orlean, paradise on Earth.

But, again, why do people read? The current understanding is that the reading habits acquired in early childhood thanks to devoted parents and educators are lost with the onset of adolescence (which seems to begin at ten these days…) when compulsory reading for school takes times off reading for pleasure. I would say that this only happens in the case of children whose reading for pleasure is never fully established as a habit, for lack of sufficiently strong skills. These deficient skills (we teach children to read too late) make compulsory reading a chore, even a torture, which is not balanced by pleasure reading. Those of us who simply cannot help reading usually develop a bag of tricks to put up with compulsory reading. Thus, throughout my graduate years I used to keep at hand a book I very much wanted to read and allow myself to grab it only as a reward for having read the stuff I hated. What? You really think that Literature teachers love reading ALL kinds of books? You must be joking…

The issue which appears to be much under-researched is what exactly triggers the pleasure of reading in the minority of avid readers. I’m sure that neuroscientists have already proven that reading results in the building up of synaptic connections that make our brain work faster, to speak informally. What we don’t know is what causes a child to become addicted to reading and thus begin the life-long process of adding books to the personal list of readerly conquests. Avid readers often speak of compulsion and of the unstoppable need to read anything to satisfy the craving. I do know that chain-reading has little to do with the experience of most average readers, who tend to read just a few books a year. Yet, my assumption is that if you decode what lies behind the most extreme cases of chain-reading then you might help others to feel happier reading. There must be a sort of nicotine in reading, as there is in smoking, if you get my drift. Or, if you want something less toxic, then endorphins like those generated by exercising.

If you read enthusiastic websites, such as Serious Reading and its post “30 Reasons to Read” (https://seriousreading.com/blog/283-30-reasons-to-read-books.html ) you will find there a nice collection of the positive consequences brought on by reading, though not a fully tested cause why reading gives pleasure. The authors claim, by the way, that reading acts like callisthenics for the brain and can help prevent mental disease and Alzheimer’s, which is not quite true but sounds nice. It is, at any rate, a constant cause of dismay for me to see that the barrage of advice intended to keep our bodies in full health never mentions the benefits of reading from a book thirty minutes every day. Or of listening to audiobooks as an alternative. The brain, I think, is the most neglected vital organ in our bodies, particularly as regards its specific pleasures. You hear plenty about how the brain is the most potent sexual organ, but you never hear about the pleasures that are most intimately connected with our neurons, possibly because they have the word ‘intellectual’ attached to it. And that is always a downer.

I think that I am calling for an erotics of reading which makes sense of the pleasure that the written word elicits from certain brains, and which must be connected with the language centres. The more conservative kind of reader might say at this point that, logically, the pleasure of reading is linked to the linguistic artistry of Literature but in my own view (and experience) beautiful verse or prose increases a pleasure that is already there, in the contact with the paper or the screen. Simple prose has its rewards, whereas complex texts offer other rewards. The extremely arid volumes that many students of, say, the Law or Physics, must not just read but also study bring the satisfaction of knowledge gained, which is essential for that ‘read, read, and read, and then what?’ to make sense. With a caveat: if your pleasure reading tends towards storytelling you will gain great insight into personal experience beyond your own but not necessarily be made unhappy; if you read for knowledge, your habit will take you to a clearer understanding of the world, which usually brings wonder and awe, but that may also bring disappointment and sadness, perhaps a silent fury against the sorry state of Homo Sapiens’ decadent civilization.

After about forty years as an avid reader, what I find most engaging in books is their interconnectedness. How one book leads to the next one, and that to a whole new field you had never heard about but want to explore. In fact, I recommend to everyone that you free yourself from narrative, which is what 90% of readers enjoy, and set out to navigate other waters. I had always disliked autobiography and memoirs, preferring the superior narrative skills of novelists, but I have suddenly seen their appeal; the same applies to History books, and to the volumes aimed at making science accessible to lay persons. I don’t know whether this is an experience shared by most avid readers, but as I age, I feel more inclined towards the books that bring new knowledge and not only new stories.

You read, read, and read, and then feel ecstatic to discover that there is much more to learn and enjoy reading until your time on Earth runs out. Don’t let anyone say that you wasted it.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/