Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature
An Essayby Joyce Carol Oates
It might be argued that reading constitutes the keenest, because most secret, sort of pleasure. And that it’s a pleasure best savored by night: by way of an ideal insomnia. At such times, lamplight illuminating the page but not much else, the world is writ small, deliciously small, and words, another’s voice, come forward. What I love about wakefulness, the insomniac says, is being alone, and reading.
Insomnia is a predilection, a skill, a way of being, best cultivated young: in early adolescence if possible. To begin in adulthood would be a pity since, at the very least, so much precious solitude (i.e., occasions for reading) has already been lost.
You know it’s poetry, Emily Dickinson says, when it takes the top of your head off. Or when, to use Randall Jarrell’s metaphor, you’re struck by lightning—as a reader. All great poetry is enhanced by the occasion of its discovery, and by the occasion of its savoring: a poem by night is far more powerful than a poem by day. And there are certain mysterious poems, like this by Walt Whitman—atypical Whitman, it should be noted—that can only be read by night.
This is thy hour O soul,
thy free flight into the wordless,Away from books, away from art,
the day erased, the lesson done,Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing,
pondering the themes thou lovest best:Night, sleep, death and the stars.