Reading Edmund White’s books is always a pleasurable experience whether he’s chronicling the contemporary, sashaying back to the distant past in his two excellent historical novels or examining the riveting details of his own experiences. His most recent book “The Unpunished Vice” gives us the rare opportunity to consider his life as a reader and how this naturally coincides with his life as a writer. This account is a natural development for White who has written many book reviews in his life and biographies of a few notable writers including a beautifully voluminous account of Jean Genet and purposefully brief but insightful looks at Proust and Rimbaud. He’s both an avid fan and brilliant participant in the culture of world literature. So it’s absolutely fascinating to read this chronicle of how his experiences have drawn him to certain books and how they've influenced his writing. He gives absorbing commentary on several books as well as the community of authors he knows and interacts with. As a quintessential reader he understands that “Reading is a hobby that never grows stale - and an unpunished vice.”
White may wryly comment on his disorganized approach to reading, but his range of references and the amount of books he alludes to is impressive. He expounds upon classics such as “The Tale of Genji”, “The Sound of the Mountain”, “The Charterhouse of Parma”, “Pale Fire”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick”, “In Search of Lost Time” and “Anna Karenina”. These are all books he illuminates with fresh insight and his favourite choices aren’t just due to their critical stature. There’s an ever-mutating canon of literature which slowly changes due to academic reading lists, literary prizes and ardent cheerleading critics. So he easily brushes off some writers who don’t jell with his sensibility like when he observes “I found Thomas Mann rough sledding”. White also comments upon the careers and reputations of writers such as Colette, Cocteau, Jean Giono, Henry Green, Rebecca West, Curzio Malaparte, Emmanuel Carrere, Ronald Firbank, Penelope Fitzgerald and Neel Mukherjee. He expounds upon the social and political influence writers’ ideologies and reputations have had upon their careers and how this sometimes determines whether they remain in print. His perspective on contemporaries and friends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Carey and Yiyun Li also come with tantalizing details of his personal relationships to them – as well as his deep admiration for his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures for readers is to discover complementary or wildly different opinions on books we personally hold in high or low regard. So it gave me a sly smile reading how White writes “I disliked Yukio Mishima, whom everyone praised” because the only Mishima novel I’ve read left me a little puzzled and nonplussed. But my hackles were raised when White curtly observes how the characters in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” speak in a way which is indistinguishable from each other. Certainly the style of their sub-conscious speech is of a single poetic tone, but their personalities and perspectives vary dramatically. This is my favourite novel so naturally I’d be touchy about it. But I enjoyed how White’s readings and commentary hits this kind of sweet spotof bookish debate which is somewhere between literary analysis and a book club. Not only did it make me think more dynamically about what I've read, but the idiosyncratic ways we approach books. Against the prevailing tide of readers who look for themselves in literature White quips “People assume that we read to see our reflection, but this reader, at least, prizes difference, strangeness.”
It's moving reading about White's motives for wanting to write and engage with literary culture. In addition to his reflections on the craft “For me writing is a performance art”, there's an emotional vulnerability in his analysis of himself and what literature has meant to him. But some of the most powerful parts of this chronicle are in White's pithy summations about the nature of reading and our relationship with books. He remarks how “We live in a world of accidents, contingency, constant change; fiction prepares us for that. It is the only art form that places us in the mind of a perceiver. That is its greatest gift.” Reading is both a way of escaping ourselves and better understanding each other - desires which White vividly describes amidst laying out his lifelong ambitions for literary recognition. In this book he charts the way literature lives with us observing how “We never read the same book twice. But each time it is our book, locked in our innermost heart as we move and change through time.” Just as there have always been communities of authors, there have always been communities of readers. White clearly knows and understands the inherent greediness of bookworms who endlessly desire to read more and more.