Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood
I am not a writer, in the book-ish sense. I have always been perfectly happy to perfect my role as a reader, and leave the manuscripts and publishing and so forth to others. I am also not terribly interested in authors as people; I’ve never been to a reading or book signing, I’ve watched maybe three author talks via the internet, and I don’t really read their interviews or guest posts. I will occasionally read an author biography, but only when it’s by one of my favourite biographers and they don’t have a non-author selection. I suspect I’m in the minority amongst book bloggers, but I prefer to keep my knowledge centered around the works of authors, rather than their persons.
All of which is to say that I was a little hesitant to pick up Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, which is subtitled A Writer on Writing. Fortunately, I ended up falling in love with this slim book, which is a collection of lectures Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. The essays include more biographical bites, from Atwood’s childhood to her experiences as a colonial author, when Canada was seen as occupying the fringe of civilisation, but they’re primarily made up of erudite, sharp-witted analyses of various aspects of literature. Atwood calls upon a fascinatingly broad range of sources, and I found each essay, even the ones of author-ly dilemmas I’ll never face, page-turning.
My favourite two happened to be the final ones, titled “Communion: Nobody to Nobody” and “Descent: Negotiating With the Dead.” “Communion” explores the relationship between authors, books, and readers, or as Atwood’s subtitle puts it: “the eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.” This was quite a thought-provoking piece, and I very much enjoyed the way she teased out the subtleties involved. Of course, nowadays one could explore the effects of social media on that triangle, but as an old-fashioned woman in that respect, I found the essay’s pre-blogging/Twitter/etc. existence refreshing. That being said, I suspect many bloggers would enjoy the piece. ;) “Descent” is a wonderful look at how writing and literature entwine with myth (the Western Civ variety), with various comparisons between writers and journeys into the Underworld. It was quite a perfect essay, and just writing about it makes me wish to revisit it.
All in all, this is has confirmed Atwood as one of my go-to authors, and I highly recommend Negotiating With the Dead for anyone who loves books about books or wishes they could be a perpetual student (after all, these were originally lectures) or just wants to see their reading life with new eyes.