books + consumerism = mésalliance

Talk with Dorota Masłowska

When I’m here in Warsaw, reading just seems so pornographically unproductive. It’s horrible that in the time it takes to read a book, you could watch seven films and documentaries or watch 150 music videos – Dorota Masłowska about piles of books and the pornographically unproductive act of reading

3 minutes reading left

AGNIESZKA SOWIŃSKA: I can’t think of anyone who writes in a more oral style than you do: to me, your books are more heard than read. Do you seek inspiration in books when you write?

DOROTA MASŁOWSKA: That too, but it’s not just books. What I like to do most is remix colloquial speech with a high literary standard. Everyday ramblings with The Magic Mountain. So I listen to what people talk about, of course, but I also look for literature that would give me a rhythm to which I can set that speech. I listen to myself and friends that are also writers and I realise just how contagious the language your reading at the moment is. You pick up the speech patterns of the people around you. Everything that’s distinct and intense has a way of infecting you.

I just recently remembered that I had this quirky hobby at the beginning of elementary school, where I would write down what people said exactly the way they said it. There was something that fascinated me about the improper syntax and about how different it was from the sentences in our reader. The problem was that no one else seemed to find it fascinating…

Have you managed to pass that sensitivity to words on to you daughter?

I don’t know if I really needed to pass it on. It’s amazing how a child is its own person from the moment it’s born. It absorbs and picks things up, but its dreams and desires are innate – you can’t manipulate them. And books are dreams, too. Malina has been crazy about books for a long time, and I know kids that are completely impervious to books, despite their wonderful development. We read a lot everyday, and I sometimes get the impression that reading so many children’s books is affecting my readership of adult books.

I read to my seven-month-old son, but I too just can’t wait until he starts taking an interest in the story itself, and not just in the melody of my voice.

Once you get past the children’s book stage where a doggy goes for a walk in the grass, meets a butterfly, and says “hi”, you move on to full-fledged stories where you have a greater selection to choose from. We’re reading Alice in Wonderland now, and it’s absolutely brilliant. What’s amazing about some of these books is that they make no pretension of having some deep, metaphysical meaning, and yet those additional meanings appear by themselves.

What about your parents? Did they read to you?

My mom and my grandmother read to us a lot. I never went to the cinema or the theatre with my parents, but they regarded books as fundamental, so I continue that tradition with my own kid. We didn’t have a spectacular collection of books; there was no ritual or order to it. But once I learned to read, my mom would buy me a book every week. I filled up quite a few bookshelves and became a very avid reader, while my brother, for example, seemed impervious to it. I don’t even know if he’s read my books. I remember when, one Christmas, my parents gave him Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy, and that was one of the most depressing presents I’d ever seen [laughs]. They completely missed the mark: he was a digital boy. There has to be a passion for words in a kid if they’re going to get addicted to reading.

Have you collected a proper home library of your own?

Oh God, no. I used to arrange books by colour. But then my home fell apart, along with my colour-coded collection. Some of the books I gave away, some of them I lost, and I’m not even sure what I have right now. I always lend out my favourite books, and they end up missing. Then again, I still have other people’s favourites that I haven’t returned. Everything’s completely disorganised and stacked up in piles. I don’t see the point of collecting. You get some, you lose some. I don’t belong to the culture of collecting. I don’t know how to collect, organise or archive.

Dorota Masłowska, photo: Marcin Nowak

Don’t you have a single book that has stayed with you, that you always have at hand, even after moving so many times?

No, I just don’t see the point of it. I remember reading The Glass Bead Game by Hesse… Hesse, right? Yes. That was a horrible book, I don’t remember anything from it, except for this one passage that said that the reason people make collections is that they succumb to this innate need to impose order onto a part of the world. People think that if they can carve out some fragment of reality and organise it, they will have subdued the chaos. But that’s destined to fail and chaos will always emerge victorious, because the collection is always interrupted by the death of its owner. The death of the collector always causes the collection to dissolve back into chaos.

You’re saying that collectors are people who can’t come to grips with their own mortality and wish to preserve the present at all costs in the most condensed, permanent form possible?

Death just seems so close that I feel like it would be a waste of time to worry about objects. Of course, an attitude like that can produce unintended results. I live in a world of chaos and disorder…

Everything looks nice and tidy to me.

This is the official part of the party. Just around the corner is a whole stack of boxes that I’ve been meaning to unpack for three years now [laughs]. I think that my inability to stay organised is actually really tiring, and that my lack of organisation requires more time and attention than just getting organised would.

Alright, so you do have books all over the place, but if you suddenly need a book, do you know where to look for it?

I can’t imagine a situation in which I would suddenly need some specific book or passage. I remember the important ones. I’m convinced that a book is the product of itself and the reader – where you are in your life, how much time and attention you have for the book, and your emotional state. A book happens over time: the few days or the week it takes you to read it. The only thing that matters is what that book does in the one particular head that annexed it.

Is there a book that has permanently changed your life?

There are several. They’re mostly things I read when I was young, when my life was still open to change: Miss Nobody [a book by Tomasz Tryzna also screened by Andrzej Wajda – ed.], for example. Now my life is much more resistant, and literary style has little more than a superficial effect on me.

Do you read your own books?

When you write, you have to read your own manuscript hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It becomes a part of your soul. Writing a book is an extraordinarily powerful process, not just intellectually, but spiritually, too. It’s a gigantically long mantra. I know there are people who take a technical approach to writing books – like a factory – but if you’re pulling words out of your guts when you’re writing, it has to leave some mark on your sense of reality. I don’t want to get too far into this topic, because, well, it’s a bit difficult and weird, and intimate, too, but I’m sure that writing books has a way of catalysing things, making them actually happen. It’s a dangerous force: you could make an American horror film about it.

You could write the screenplay. Then again, who would want to go see a film about a book?

When I read your email about how you’re doing a series of interviews about books and book collections, I found myself astonished that books still exist, and that there are people out there that still read them.

What do you mean?

I’m deeply convinced that it’s something of a dying medium, and that books are going to gravitate towards a niche, an exclusive hobby.

Dorota Masłowska

Born 1983 in Wejherowo. She rose to fame with her 2002 bestseller White and Red (published in the USA as Snow White and Russian Red). Her 2005 follow-up, The Queen’s Peacock, received the Nike Literary Award. She is also known internationally as a playwright, having written A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians (2006) and We’re All Good (2008). Her debut book has been published in France (Polococtail Party), Italy, Germany, the USA, the UK, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Hungary. Dorota Masłowska lives in Warsaw.

An exclusive hobby?

In the sense that it requires a significant amount of will, time, and money.

You know, I think that the world is now full of much simpler, more economic forms of communication, ones that are more appealing in terms of speed and cost. Books will have no reason to exist, or will make a comeback as a snobbish hobby, a mental variety of slow food, if you will. Even for me – and books, after all, are a key part of my professional life – reading has become something of an extravagance. And when you stop reading regularly, that skill loses its edge and disappears.

Interestingly, I now have a TV set, after years of not owning a television. But I just can’t watch it: my brain won’t accept it. I flip the channels, I look at the screen, but I just can’t focus. Sometimes I even go through the TV show listings, looking for some interesting film or documentary. I’ve had the TV for a year, and I don’t think I’ve managed to watch an entire show from start to finish since I got it. I just can’t do it. Perhaps it’s because I live in a big city with a very accelerated vibe, where you can’t afford to sit around in a café with your friends, because it’s too great a misuse of time.

You don’t have time to read?

That would be the simplest answer, but I don’t think that’s it. Books simply require a certain kind of concentration. You need to be able to escape from reality and spend time elsewhere. It’s like role playing.

Don’t you at least read the paper with your morning coffee?

I’ll read the paper every once in a while, but I find it boring. It strikes me how radically political newspapers are nowadays. You’d have to buy two or three of them just to balance out all the spin and to deduce what actually happened. The problem with that, again, is that I don’t have enough time to read three papers.

If we take the path of reducing everything to its simplest form, there should be some computer programme that you could feed articles from Uważam Rze, Wprost, and let’s say Polityka – not Przekrój, because that’s become all pictures and no writing – and it would extract what was more or less the truth. Something like that should be possible, because it’s essentially a very mathematical concept.

I don’t know if I should put that in the interview. It’s a great business idea…

Perhaps it‘ll inspire someone to take a shot at it.* I don’t care about the money [laughs]. You know, I think that even over the past ten years that I’ve been a writer, I can plainly see the changes under way in the media: we’re shifting in the direction of visual culture, catchprases, images, captions, abbreviations…

As long as we’re on the topic of consumption: how many books have your read this year?

I’m afraid the number is nothing I’d want to boast about [laughs]. It’s become harder and harder to find the time to just retreat from reality and read ten books in a row.

Was there a time when you did that?

I spent my entire childhood and high school years doing that. Over summer vacation, I would go to the library every day, check one book out, and return it the next day. Sitting on the balcony and reading: it’s a beautiful memory. I had another summer like that three years ago, when I managed to read a whole stack of books, one after the other. This may sound terrible, but when I’m here in Warsaw, reading just seems so pornographically unproductive. I read when I’m sick in bed and I can’t get up. It’s horrible that in the time it takes to read a book, you could watch seven films and documentaries or watch 150 music videos. I realise that by saying that, I’m revealing that I’m completely infected – like many people, I think – by this consumerist model of participating in culture.

Just checking things off a list.

I recently realised that my relationship with books over the past few years has involved me buying them and placing them on my bookshelf. I’ve consumed entire piles of books in this fashion: I buy them, thinking that they’ll be great to read, and then I put them on the shelf. The “checking things off” model has seeped in everywhere. But I also know a few people who treat reading and consuming books as a way to avoid reality. It’s a kind of readership that doesn’t lead to anything. It just lets them not be there.

Books are pretty safe as far as drugs go.

That may be true. But I don’t think you get anything out of books that you consume or read just for the sake of reading them, just to have them read and be done with them.

There are plenty of lists like that. “One hundred books to read before you die”, and so on.

That affair between readership and consumerism is just crude. It’s a mésalliance

Then perhaps it’s fortunate that average people are reading less and less, and that reading is becoming an exclusive activity. Perhaps that’s good for books?

It may be good for books, but it could be downright apocalyptic for people and language. Books – even when used as purely educational tools – help people grow. We rely on words. You experience that which you can describe. People should learn to describe things, so that they can experience them. I find that very interesting, even though I’m not quite sure how it works. Experience, and hence memory, comes from the word.

translated by Arthur Barys

* Such website already exists. It filters content from Polish media allowing one to choose it according to how much time it takes to read, watch or listen.

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.