In recent years, I have realized that I now relate to literature and poetry the same way I relate to music. Just as I can get a strong desire to listen to a certain song, today I can get a strong desire to read a certain poem, an essay, or a certain chapter of a novel. This is a new side of reading for me. A side I didn’t really understand the importance of before.
I would like to recall that Olof Lagercrantz in his book The Art of Reading and Writing encouraged the reader to memorize verses of poetry, for the pleasure of carrying them with you wherever you go. Even Sven Lindqvist wrote in his essay Kalevala about the comfort of being able to memorize a few well-selected ditties to read to oneself in moments of despair. I’ve probably had one or two favorite poems over the years, but I realize that something has changed.
Possibly it was The Process by Kafka that made me discover the happiness of return. Pretty soon after reading it, I realized I wanted to read it again. And unlike a crime novel, which is rarely a good idea to reread, it went perfectly. I also realized that I had already acquired favorite chapters that were extra pleasant to read again. After that, I could return only to these particular chapters when I felt like it.
Today it has become a large part of my reading. The pile of books by the bed is not threateningly high because they are books waiting to be read. It’s high because I keep returning to different sections of books other than the one I’m currently reading. In the middle of reading Selma Lagerlöf, I also have to read a piece from Torgny Lindgren, Tove Jansson, or, for that matter, Kafka.
Some poems have today been given the same status as good songs. In the same way that I sometimes have to listen to Letter to the 10th Floor by Thåström, I sometimes have to read the mysterious poem The Ballad of the Three Hanged by Bo Setterlind. And just like in the song by Thåström, I already know what’s coming. I know the text, but as you know, the content can be so much more than that.
There are so many different ways to read. I am not and never have been, a bookworm. I rarely read for entertainment or to pass the time. I want more than that. I jump between different books, let myself be led from one to the other and therefore usually have three or four books going at the same time, if not more. It’s no weirder than watching several different TV series at the same time.
When I’m asked what I’m reading right now and if I have any reading tips, I usually have a hard time answering. Four, five, six books quickly pop into my head but I don’t know which one to choose to say I’m reading right now. And which one is good? Very rarely is it about a few kiosk overturners. Nowadays, I have memorized a few well-chosen books that I can at least recommend to anyone who wants tips on something good. I find it all the easier to recommend a poem, an essay, or a chapter in a novel. Unfortunately, it is seldom that anyone asks for it.
Just today I recommend, if someone were to ask: The Ballad of the Three Hanged by Bo Setterlind. Not because it is edifying, ingenious, or because it “should” be read. That’s what I oppose. But the enigmatic nature of the poem never ceases to fascinate me. It’s one of those texts I return to when the spirit strikes me. But despite its simplicity, I still don’t know what it’s really about. And that’s probably what makes it worth returning to.
Mattias is an author and illustrator