It's Never Too Dark to Read: On Reviews and Unread Books

by Gary Barwin

Mom: "How was the show?”

Me:     “Oh, the audient loved it."

As Gertrude Stein says, perhaps I am because my little dog knows me. Perhaps, too, the writer may feel that a book is because a reader knows it, and even more so, a book is because a reviewer reviews it and so it becomes part of the discourse. Of course, the reception of a book, its traction, whether momentary or long-lasting is part of the meaning of a book, and is, ultimately, part of the discourse itself.

Perhaps human language exists apart from use. The snail’s-crawl of the hand at play. The choreography of the breath. The sound that grammar makes when its humans are not there. Perhaps our language has life apart from words, sentences, speech and books, though it also is made of these things. A giraffe without land or air may be a beautiful thing, but it isn't a giraffe in the usual sense.

But I believe in the unread book. Its mystery. Its potential. What might be behind its hidden doors. Or the secret book, the book known to few. And in truth, some books have an ideal audience which is small, or specialized. If it’s only her dog, if it's only this one single dog that truly knows Gertrude Stein — and Gertrude Stein knows how it knows her — it therefore knows her in a way that no others do and Stein has a unique dog-derived self-knowledge as a result of this. Though Stein is also known by many. And she herself knew how she was known by many. But that's another kind of knowing. Sometimes as a writer, I like to think of myself and my writing like two lovers, or two small children, hidden in secret beneath blankets, whispering secrets to each other. 

Or maybe it’s me and my dog under the blankets and one or more of us are farting. All of this by way of talking about reviews. I'm always very grateful for reviews. Of course, I'd like people to encounter my books, to enter into a dog/Stein relationship of their own with them quite independent of me and my own authorStein/dogreader relationship. And reviews facilitate this. They facilitate more readers finding out about the book, and begin a dialogue between them and the book. Or a trialogue. Between the book, the reviewer, and the potential reader.

And obviously, for the writer and for those who have already read the book in question, reviews often show new ways to think about a work. To see the work and what it is doing, what it is trying to do, what it might do, how it relates to other work, what is its context. At the very least, it allows us to see how others might approach a book. What they notice, what they think about, how it fits into their notion of reading, books, literature, the world. Certainly, sometimes the reviews tell us more about how a specific reader has read the book. Or misread it. Because of course, we don't always agree, but then again, we don't always agree with our dogs.

For me, it’s the same for both reviews and dogs: even when I’m frustrated with them, I’m happy with them. And, to continue the identification of reviews with dogs: when I look at my dog, I learn something about my dog, certainly, but also something about myself. Sometimes, something about my expectations. Certainly, something about our relationship.

Beyond entering into a dialogue with my work, I know that, in addition, a review might introduce more readers to my writing, which I would like. I do have misgivings about “the marketplace” sensibility for I’m a pure soul, existing outside of any accounts receivable pork barreality in the ethereal starry dynamo of noncapitalist Blakelight which shines on my invisible hand making only nonmaterialist dogshadows on the lucreless agora. But, in truth, outside of the very satisfying networks, the temporary autonomous zones of specialized readers, bookstores, and the webs of those who know my work, the marketplace is still the primary way readers find out about my books.

I do sometimes feel that without my writing being read I’m a bit like Schrödinger’s cat. I may or may not be alive as a writer. In Schrödinger’s box, no one knows you’re a dog. Or a poet. There is also, I have to be honest, though I dislike this in myself, a sense of validation. Look, I’ve written a real book! Someone has reviewed it! I’m a real writer, after all! It’s only the insecure part of me that wishes for this external validation. Even Emily Dickinson shared her work, despite her reputation as a literary hermit. Hope is the thing without feathers, but writers rarely exist without readers. They’d feel plucked bare. However, my absolute core belief as a writer is that I must write the books that I must write whether there are dogs around or not, whether the book is unread or not.  The book itself is dog or cat enough for me. Or a naked chicken.

But I delight in the exchange of ideas, of discussions about books, in a careful consideration of the work. And so, I'm most grateful for the reviews that I’ve had. I appreciate the thoughtful engagement with my work. And I am truly grateful for the readers and/or reviewers of my books. In a recent interview for Open Book, James Lindsay asked me about readers. I’m going to quote myself since it seems as if the guy in the interview took the words right out of my mouth. Ahem: Because I write in several different ways and forms — from “experimental” poetry and fiction to more conventional fiction and even children’s writing — I often think about the particular reader who might encounter the work. The expectations and approach to reading that they might bring to the text. (Hey, that’s a pretty terrible window you have there. Yeah, that’s because it’s a glass of water.) I try to imagine how a particular reader might respond. It’s something about how they are in the world. How they heft the words as they read them. The spring of their emotions, the elasticity of their thought, the bounciness of their interpretation. It’s as if reading is one of the fundamental forces in the universe along with gravity, electromagneticism and the rest.

Ideally, readers would be involved in a kind of linguistic tango with a text. Sometimes the text would lead, but sometimes the reader would send it signals to see how it might respond. They’d be an antennae, ready to pick the slightest tremor or signal. But the text could be an antennae, too. Or like a tango dancer, ready to turn on an Argentinian dime. It’d be a give and take, signals sent back and forth between reader and text, sounding each other out, echolocating each other, figuring out the nature of what they each are. The same is true with reviewers. They might have an idea about a particular text or about texts in general. A hypothesis. Then they’d see if the text substantiated this speculation. (And I don’t mean criticizing a text for not conforming to their hypothesis or credo. This dog looks nothing like a cat! This poem looks nothing like a toaster! Why is this book in French?! It’s like it doesn’t use English words at all!) I’m thinking the process would be more like dousing. They’d hold out their speculative stick and wait for it to shake. Of course, I’d hope that the potential reviewer would also be a watcher at the pond, waiting without expectation to see what might be observed, ready for ideas about the work to come dripping out of the textual water, like Venus or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Because that is what reading is like, right?

When I read a book, I often think about the others — whether civilians or reviewers — who might also have read the book. Perhaps they come from a different time or place. Perhaps they are yet to be born and will read the book in the future, perhaps in some dimension not yet discovered (currently now known only by our lost socks). I feel part of a company of readers, a readerhood joined by our experience, our intimacy with a particular book. By our love or abhorrence of it. Or by our neglect of the book, or our desire to read it. Or our longing to reread it, our wish to discover it again as if for the first time. Our longing to know about a book but not read it. Maybe we, the book’s readers are myriad or maybe we are only a scatterling society of illuminati, those few who know the book’s secrets.  Perhaps we feel it is only us who has read the book for even the author’s mother only made halfway through, and their editor was never sober. We readers, we are because our little dog, our special book, know us.

Of course I value readers, but I’m also grateful to those who bought one my books but didn't read it, but would rather just imagine — with fear, trepidation, wonder, and disgust — what might be behind its deer-coloured sports-sock-infused front gate. Its stripy retro-TV test pattern visage. Its nautical blue meshuggenah parrotscape. Its avocado green moon baboon canoieity. The conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith speaks of wishing not for a readership but a thinkership. I’m good with that, but, thinking of my publishers and editors, let’s amend that to “buyership.” However, I would like to take this opportunity, before I’m done, to thank those who have never bought or never heard of my books — all those on this planet and all those lifeforms extant in other places of the present, past, and all possible universes. You help make my books mysterious, unknown, a sanctuary for initiates and cognoscenti. You maintain the notion of my books as places of infinite possibility, as thought-and-feeling machines of limitless potential energy. You make special dogs of those who have dog-eared my work, those who have actually read it.

In conclusion, Dear Reader, I’m sure you know that famous Groucho Marx line, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.” But, in the end, it seems, we are all dogs — books, authors, readers, reviewers, Gertrude Stein’s dog — and there’s one thing we all know: it’s never too dark to read, because so often, that’s the point. It’s never too dark to read. Never too dark to think about reading.


Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist and the author of 21 books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His novel Yiddish for Pirates (Penguin Random House Canada) won the 2017 Leacock Medal for Humour, the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Fiction and was a Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award finalist. It has recently been released in the US and as an audiobook. His latest poetry collection is No TV for Woodpeckers (Wolsak & Wynn) His interactive writing installation using old typewriters and guitar processors was featured during 2016-2017 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. A PhD in music composition, Barwin is 2017-2018 writer-in-residence at McMaster University and the Hamilton Public Library. He also works with the Art Forms program teaching creative writing to at-risk youth.  Barwin lives in Hamilton, Ontario with vague and unfounded suspicions about both language and Toronto.