Alan Cheuse’s "Listening to the Page"
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The writer is Alan Cheuse, and his new book is “Listening to the Page: Adventures in reading and writing.” It’s a collection of essays written over the past two decades. Cheuse is the author of three novels and three collections of short stories. He’s the book commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and he teaches writing at George Mason University in Virginia. Thanks for being with us.
ALAN CHEUSE: My pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the book, you compare your appetite for reading to your appetite for sex and food. Now, that’s going pretty far. How do you explain your great love for reading?
ALAN CHEUSE: I think it’s one of the major human appetites. We have to feed the imagination. It’s a great beast and it keeps saying, “more, more, give me more to read.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did it begin for you?
ALAN CHEUSE: My father read a Russian fairytale to me. I was just beyond infancy, somewhere snuggled up in bed, I guess about the age of one-and- a-half or two, and he read in Russian from this strange contraption that he turned the pages, I didn’t even know what to call them. It smelled of oranges and dry sand, some book he’d brought with him all the way from then Soviet Union on his own odyssey some years before. And I thought, “this is terrific. You look at those squiggles on the page and you make a sound and someone laughs.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ( Laughs ) Just for the record, how many books would you say you’ve reviewed over the past two decades?
ALAN CHEUSE: Thousands.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thousands?
ALAN CHEUSE: Thousands.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You even say at one point– and you’re quoting Jorge Luis Borges– you even say that you’re more proud of the books you’ve read than of the books you’ve written.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I think Borges was probably thinking about the “Odyssey,” and the “Iliad,” and “Quixote,” and such, and I’d certainly agree with that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a certain amount of despair for the state of reading today, and that’s part of what your book’s about. Explain.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I think we’re moving towards a terrible state. We may have two populations: One that reads and one that doesn’t. The literacy problem in America is one that we’ve all felt challenged by. We’re trying to turn young kids into readers, but at the same time, we’ve got a population of adults who don’t read either. So the combination of illiteracy and alliteracy presents a very large chunk of the population, which in the future will become Group “A,” while Group “B,” those people who read, are going to become the people who run things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And why does this give you despair? What’s so important? In fact, this is one of the things I most liked about this book. You’re so clear about why reading is so important and literature is so important.
ALAN CHEUSE: How else do we know other minds, other worlds, other places? We’re not mind-readers, but you can read someone else’s mind when they put it into an appropriately beautiful and well-constructed work of art. I think that’s what we need to know. So it’s a hunger, as I say, that the imagination demands. But something that we need to perform if we’re going to be human. We need to fulfill our human obligation to ourselves.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting. You even talk about the primacy of the art of fiction of poetry over the other arts, which was quite daring of you.
ALAN CHEUSE: Yes. My wife’s a choreographer and she’d bop me on the head if she…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I bet.
ALAN CHEUSE: …If she hears me say this, but I think that the story is everything. Dance and music all contributes to the story, but the unfolding of the narrative in our heads, that’s the most beautiful thing to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you’re not without hope about the state of reading. You’re not completely despairing, are you?
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, it’s a war we’re fighting on several fronts. I think we need to work in the schools with young children. I think people need to volunteer to do work in literacy programs. And I think at the university level, we’ve got to stop the trend towards the ultimate technological university at the expense of the humanities– particularly literature.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For you, as a writer, what has all this reading done? Describe the relationship between reading and writing for you.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, writers read in the way that a composer listens to music, the way painters look at other works of art. It teaches you technique. It teaches you what’s come before. It teaches you how… What you might do to further the art a little bit, one inch. It’s a glacier. Art is a kind of glacier that moves along very slowly, and you make your small contribution, but you can’t move at all unless you’ve got the force of all of those great works of art behind you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For example, can you give me an example of something that you read which opened up a whole new way of thinking about writing for you, and influenced you greatly?
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I think any American writer– well, this American writer would say Faulkner. It was an amazing, amazing event to read my first Faulkner. The language itself was extraordinary. He’s our Shakespeare. And even though Melville tried to be our Shakespeare, Faulkner accomplished it. And it showed me just how deep into the imagination you could dig in order to find the constituent parts of a story, to make a novel out of the deep past of the culture, and also push people to think about the future.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is writing very difficult for you? You have some interesting things to say in the book about how most people think that writing is just something you do, you sit and put words on a page, but how very, very difficult it is.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I love what Thomas Mann once said about the difficulty of writing. He said it always amused him to discover that the only people who thought writing was difficult were writers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) So are you saying it’s quite difficult for you?
ALAN CHEUSE: Oh, it’s a very difficult task. It’s the intellectual counterpart of turning a stone into a beautiful shape. John Gardiner, my dear late friend used to say, “the sculptor has it easy. He just has to carve the stone. The writer first has to cough it up.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) Alan, what do you want people to take away from this book? What did you hope to do when you put together these writings from so many years of your life?
ALAN CHEUSE: I think I wanted to introduce some books that might have fallen out of the public view to a new audience. The work of writers like James Agee and some Steinbeck, and some Latin American writers who I think are truly marvelous, that really have fallen out of sight in the current publishing world. But I also wanted to bring people’s attention to this war, as I described it earlier, between illiteracy and the alliterate, and to try to show us that we need to bring these people into American culture by means of reading. All those people who right now are wandering around as if in a kind of half-life. They can’t read, therefore, their imaginations are impoverished.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I had the feeling that you also wanted to reaffirm for other great readers what they were doing.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I think that I wanted to live these stories again. I wanted to reread some of these great books again, and I wanted to have the experience of going back to Steinbeck, going back to Faulkner, going back to some of the Latin American writers, and rereading’s a great time. It’s great fun. And so I don’t think there’s anything somber about this business. This is the great joy of being human, that we have the capacity to perform all of these wonderful spectacles and stories in our own minds, if we just figure out what those little squiggles on the page mean.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are you reading and writing now?
ALAN CHEUSE: Right now I’m reading some novels that are coming out in August. Reviewers are always a couple of months ahead. So I’m reading a German novel, a lost novel. It came out in ’54, called The Hothouse, by a German novelist named Wolfgang Koepin. And I’m rereading Salinger because it’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. And I think I’m going to reread some Saul Bellow this summer, also.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what are you writing?
ALAN CHEUSE: What am I writing?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Besides the reviews?
ALAN CHEUSE: I’m in the middle of a novel and reading the proofs of some short stories that are coming out this fall.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Alan Cheuse, author of “Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing,” thanks so much.
ALAN CHEUSE: My pleasure, Elizabeth.