Bedside table #26. Magdalena Kicińska: Why buy toothpaste when I can buy a book?
Magdalena Kicińska, a reporter and poet, talks about the difference between professional reading and reading for pleasure, about the book club, to which she owes a lot of her literary fascinations, distrust in publishing marketing, the path from fiction to reportage, poetry as a tool, as well as about the books she gave to prisoners.
Do you have a bedside table?
Not for a while. I'm putting my books into towers, into piles. Recently, everything has fallen from my bedside table. So, I decided to do a little redecoration and move the stacks onto the etagere, which meant that the books from the rack had to find a new place. It was very painful, but they are about to find a new home in the detention centre in Katowice.
You got rid of them radically.
This is only the first time; usually, I only move them. Anyway, it was two weeks ago and during those two weeks, I brought home more books than I gave away.
Where did the idea with the detention centre come from?
This is the result of my travels and my visit to Wojtek Brzoska some time ago. He works there as a cultural-educational animator. He invited me to the detention centre, I had an author's meeting with the inmates there. I was also in the library run by Wojtek, but unfortunately, they don't have many new titles. I chose books, which I once brought home and I know I won't read them, as well as books that I won't return to. I was wondering which books the inmates might like. Would it be Prymityw ("Savage") or Dysforia („Dysphoria") by Marcin Kolodziejczyk? Can you give crime stories to prisoners? I gave the book by Kasia Nosowska for the girls in prison. I remember that we agreed that we didn't like it, but maybe they would see something else in it.
What did you keep for yourself to read?
Dzieci nie płakały ("The Children Didn’t Cry") by Natalia Budzyńska, a book about Dr. Alfred Trzebinski, a Germanised physician of Polish origin, who worked in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Majdanek, and in the last one, in Germany, and just before the end of the war, he killed twenty Jewish children. The book is brilliant, I can't stop reading it. It's the first time in a long time. I can't wait to read it again. There is always too little time, I haven't finished it yet, so it's hard for me to talk about the whole thing, but I like it very much... I dived right into it. It's well written, it should also be noted that I know and read a bit about this topic, so it's hard to surprise me. Yet here, the theme of Polish co-responsibility, which is often completely marginalised, has been well brought out, especially since "he is Germanised", so "what kind of a Pole he is".
I take turns reading the second book, which I can't put away neither. Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint. This book is a bit of a guilty pleasure, because it's basically an investigative and judicial reportage. I really like to watch and read about what is happening in the courtroom: arguments, counterarguments, defence strategies - this is my unfulfilled former life dream.
Being a lawyer?
Yes, for me, it is fascinating: the backstage of court cases, in this case - how different evidence proceedings in Israel are from the ones in Poland or in other European countries. Moreover, an addition in the form of a question to whom the work belongs: to the author, to the nation that published it, to the nation that appropriated it? There is also a universal question about separating the author from the work, about what we add on to the work after the death of the author, but also during their life. It is a fascinating and very well written book.
I understand that these are the things you read for so-called pleasure, you don't do research, you don't have a commissioned review.
No, and that is why this is going so slowly, because reading as part of my professional duties takes me a lot longer lately.
Do you have rituals that distinguish one type of reading from another?
If I read something for pleasure, I dogear, underline, scribble, but I do not have colourful sticky notes. I have always underlined, but when it is not accompanied by colours, then it’s known that reading is not guided by a professional goal, that it is for me, personal. Recently, I started enjoying lying in a hammock very much, which is mounted in the balcony door, and while reading there, wrapped in a blanket, I can take a comfortable position and just dangle.
I'm curious about what you've said about sticky notes. Do you use a specific colour in a specific function?
When I was writing a book, it was exactly like that. In blue - what I wanted to quote, in yellow - what I wanted to study further, in orange - something I wanted to return to because, for example, I do not agree with the thesis. However, when I read a book because I am preparing for an author’s meeting, I like the notes to correspond to the colours of the cover.
Where do you get books from? I mean both the technical aspect - where do you buy them, and the theoretical aspect - how do you find out about interesting titles?
Yesterday, I hosted a meeting in a bookshop in the Ujazdowski Castle, so I couldn't help but buy a book in the local bookshop, Art Bookstore.
In my case, it usually ends with spending all my honorarium. I spend as much as I get for being a host.
Same with me - I'm giving myself a gift. Anyway, why buy toothpaste or bread or other items essential for life, if I can buy a book... I try to buy in small bookshops, once more in second-hand bookshops, now it happens to me less often, because my second-hand bookshop is Allegro (Polish online e-commerce platform – translator’s note). I have recently found there a book that was placed there by Agnieszka Glińska, one of the members of the book club I belong to – ‘Książki i szmaty’ (Books and Rags): Przypadek doktora Kukockiego (“The Case of Dr. Kukocki”) by Ludmilla Ulicka. The book was not in the library or in the bookshop.
Of course, I also have the privilege of working in a monthly magazine, to which a lot of books are sent, although I try not to abuse it, because with many of these books, there is simply nothing we can do, they will not become an inspiration for anyone to write a text.
Do the publishers send them to you automatically, or is it a privilege that you can order what you want?
I can order if I have an idea for a text somehow concerning the title. This is, I think, the most fair: we have a direct reason to ask someone for a book. However, we also get a lot of unordered books, which is also very nice, but sometimes, I reach out to publishers to thank them and say that this topic is not going to appear in our magazine, so we don't need it, maybe these publications will be more useful somewhere else. I used to use libraries more in the past.
Do you have publisher discoveries? For me, for example, this would be Afera publishing house that specialises in the Czech Republic.
Lokator publishing house. It is not unknown, but certainly niche, its books can only be found in small bookshops. And poetry, these are always books from publishing houses I hear about once a year at a book fair. But generally, I'm spoiled by the inflow of books, there are no moments, like in the past, when I don't have or don't know what to read, so I go to the library.
A forgotten feeling.
And it used to be like that. At home, we read a lot, but we didn't have many books, because we went to the library, it was a ritual. As far as the non-technical aspect is concerned, I choose books according to my favourite topics, i.e. the Holocaust and genocide. It works somewhat in such a way that once you get into a topic, you don't have a problem with knowing what to read within it. The only question that remains is where to get these books, especially if they are English titles.
Do you happen to have a new passion, or are you rather monothematic?
There are waves of interest, usually related to trips. If I go to a place, I want to learn as much as possible about it. Last year, I was in China, so reportage, essays, non-fiction about China, especially about the region I was in. One of the best reportage books I've ever read about non-European countries is Rob Schmitz's Street of Eternal Happiness about Shanghai, which was published by Czarne publishing house. It made a huge impression on me: one street is a pretext for telling the story of the city, society, and the country, but without stressing that it is supposed to be a great epic, but with a very sensitive, close contact between the author and the characters.
Do you read before in order to prepare for your journey?
Before, but also when I’m there, for example Nowy Jork. Od Mannahatty do Ground Zero (“New York. From Mannahatta to Ground Zero”), a book by Magdalena Rittenhouse. I read it on a plane, and indeed, it was my guide, I took notes in it and walked the routes marked out by the author, a travel diary was created from it, with tickets and notes on a napkin. I read Street of Eternal Happiness at night, in hotels in China. Because usually, I prefer to do my own thing when I’m there.
Do you return later to the book-artefacts, full of notes, bearing traces of travel?
They're waiting for me to go there again, then, I'd love to take a look. When I come back, they become like holiday photos. When I used to take them, I didn't usually return to them. And I have to admit that I owe more waves of interest to our book club.
Can you tell us a bit about it?
We try to meet every month and a half. The pretext for the meeting is always a book given as ‘homework’, but also an exchange of clothes. That is why it’s called ‘Books and Rags’. We give the books under discussion a school grade of 1-6. They also pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: it is an indicator of the presence of women in cultural content. The point is to ask three questions about the work: do at least two named women appear in the work, do they talk to each other, and is the subject of the conversation anything other than a man? None of them have passed this test yet, but maybe it will happen someday. While discussing a given reading, there are other interesting topics that I follow, because I am curious about the opinions and sensibilities of my friends. I don't really trust the recommendations nor the marketing and promotion departments of publishers.
Don't you want to read the best novel of the year, month, and week?
I’ve been let down many times and I know they're mostly empty facades.
Do you remember such a particularly severe disappointment?
A Little Life was the biggest one.
And the other way around? The book is being promoted, and it is really great?
I really like Elizabeth Strout's prose. The book about Kafka's manuscripts was also very much advertised in my bubble. However, very often, books that turn out to be big hits, especially foreign ones, I don't have the tools to evaluate them. The fact that someone writes on the cover "the bestseller according to the Times" means nothing nowadays. That was the case with Lincoln in the Bardo, for example. I read it, because we were supposed to discuss it in the book club. We decided almost unanimously that this book is wonderful, beautiful, but... empty. I didn't care about the fate of its protagonists, emotionally, it didn't leave anything in me that would somehow resonate. On the other hand, I don't know if I have any tools to evaluate fiction at all. It is easier with non-fiction for me.
What did you read when you were younger? Or have you been into reportage since your childhood?
I came to them in time, as an early teenager. Reading reportage started with Wyjątkowo długa linia (“An Exceptionally Long Line”) by Hanna Krall. I'm from Lublin, and I often passed Złota Street and the tenement house, which is the main character of the story next to Franciszka Arnsztajnowa. Suddenly, I saw that there is a way of writing that treats about reality, but also about something beyond it, but it is not yet prose. I found my way in this way of writing. I can't explain it precisely, but at that moment in my life, I became more and more interested in the real situations described, which allowed me to understand reality. Earlier, when I was younger, I would reach for fiction, I used it as a way to escape into imaginary realities, a very tempting way and very much needed at the time. But at some point, just when I started to mature, it stopped fulfilling this function. Maybe I just started to grow out of running away then.
And reading itself started with... listening to my father reading fairy tales before bedtime. I loved Na jagody (“Picking Blueberries”), for many years, it was my favourite reading before falling asleep. I also really liked the illustrations accompanying the story by the Swede, Elsa Beskow. I also liked The Secret Garden. I also highly valued the stories about the adventures of Koziołek Matołek, Brzechwa’s poems for children, Tuwim, Gałczyński and his Sen psa (“Dog’s Dream”) - I could listen to it over and over again. Then, as I said, I started to grow up and, I think, to understand that you can't escape from reality. Then, you try to navigate it somehow and look for reading that will help you. To me, the transition from the children's library department to the adult department was a really important moment. I was able to start picking books that explained what it meant to me, for example, that I live in a city where there is a strange space called "the former concentration camp" by adults. I wanted to learn something about this place, and I was looking for books.
Did somebody recommend it to you, or did you find it yourself?
There was a librarian, I met her recently, by the way, when I was in Lublin. But I think that my father, most importantly, who always read a lot, especially about history, we talked during walks, I asked him questions. I think I saw that if you want to know about history, you reach for such and such books in a specific part of the library.
Reading that shaped you?
I don't really remember. Of course, I went through Jeżycjada, which was recommended to me by my neighbour; the first books from the series did indeed contain something that was tempting. I will never return to them again, but I remembered them and was grateful for the element of sisterhood and activism described there - I am, of course, talking about the first volumes of the series. The heroines were active, they did something outside, for others. The Experimental Signal of Goodness was, after all, a social micro campaign. I liked that. But there weren't all the parts in the library, and also, the subsequent volumes are more and more family-centred and conservative, which I wasn't really interested in, and I abandoned the series. However, I remember from Ida Sierpniowa (“August Ida”) that a dress without a pocket does not make sense, because girls do not know what to do with their hands and without a pocket, it all feels strange. I think so to this day, and I like dresses with pockets the most. I guess I liked Ida because she reminded me a little of Little My.
A very important book for me, to which I have returned many times and bought a very nice edition in a second-hand bookshop, a just-post-war one, is Gone with the Wind. The heroine in the film is completely different from the one in the book. In subsequent readings, I also drew attention to issues that were not so interesting to me before, and certainly not as controversial as today, for example the genesis and activity of the Ku Klux Klan described there. Scarlett was also a bit like Ida to me: active, taking matters into her own hands, able to teeter on the brink of femininity and what was masculine during the times when feminine roles were quite narrowly and rigidly marked. And "I'll think about it tomorrow". I often use this quote from Scarlett.
Do you read books in the original language?
I sometimes read books about the Holocaust in English. I read one of Strout's books in English, I liked the language very much and was curious whether it was a matter of translation. But my English is not and will never be as good as Polish. Although I sometimes read poetry in the original, especially Emily Dickinson. In "Pismo", we did an experiment, two translators, Jacek Dehnel and Szymon Żuchowski, confronted her poem.
However, just between us, I still don't believe that there is such a thing as translation of poetry. I think it's more like writing a poem again as an inspiration, that's how I see it. In the case of poetry, so autonomous is the text that every translation is, to me, a reinterpretation, not an interpretation. That's why reading Shakespeare in the original and checking how Barańczak handled it is a fascinating language exercise.
How is it with poetry, is there a conviction that poetry is all about what’s fleeting, about the understanding of souls, can one catch senses between sentences without even knowing the language well?
That’s how it feels to me, although it probably indicates my deep ignorance towards the art of translation. Perhaps there is less room for interpretation in prose, because there is more material, and poetry is cutting the message from words and content to the bone. Reading in the original, apart from the pleasure of communing with the text, can be a great exercise for someone who writes themselves. It can be written like this! - as in the case of the experiment with Dickinson. Or like this, like this, and like that, looking at the translations. Is it still about the same thing, or maybe not quite the same?
Have you ever thought about translating poetry?
No. I couldn’t do it. I don’t want to sound like I treat poetry mostly in a functional way, but to me, it's very interesting as a way of working on content, a different way of approaching how to convey something. Seeing how poets describe different places, states, situations, I try to draw conclusions for my reportage writing. In this sense, poetry is also a tool for me, and not just a source of pleasure, delight, or soothing.
And when you write reportage, do you try to read reportage books, or does it impede you?
Not while writing, but when I had to work on a Polish social theme, difficult, a confusing family history with trauma, I liked to look at or read, although I had read some of them many a time, the texts by Tochman from Bóg zapłać (“God Bless You”) or Lidka Ostałowska from Bolało jeszcze bardziej (“It Hurt Even More”). To remember how I'd like it to sound. It was not about specific sentences, but about the tone itself, which is appropriate for such a subject. It was an exercise in how to disentangle oneself emotionally. But that's only before, when I am writing, I don't read. But generally, you are imbued with what you read, watch, and listen to. When you create, it's hard to separate the outside from your own language, which is always the sum of all those influences.
Embarrassing reading fancies?
Sapkowski's Witcher stories. I read them passionately in high school, I brought one of the volumes with me from Lublin to Warsaw. Just as my father can read Potop (“The Deluge”) all his life, he eats his soup in the kitchen and just opens the book, it’s the same case for me with Sapkowski. I know what it's about, I can have a look at it at any time.
And do you acknowledge anything as a holiday book?
To me, a holiday book is not what is promoted as a holiday book, it is just such things that I don't have time or attention for every day. Just like the book about Trzebinski. I can't take it for a couple of tram stops, because I feel the need to read more, and I need peace of mind.
Do you give books as gifts?
Do you choose them according to a person, or do you have a title that you want to give to everyone?
Depends, but recently, it was the case with a book by Olga Wiechnik, Posełki (“Envoy Women”). Although I shouldn't talk about it because I edited it.
Oh, come on.
I'd like all the girls close to me to read it. I have also recently recommended far and wide the book on Kafka's manuscripts and Justyna Dąbrowska's conversations: Miłość jest warta starania (“Love Is Worth the Effort”). It seems to me that these conversations help. The same goes for Agnieszka Jucewicz's book about emotions, Czując (“Feeling”). I would also like people close to me to have it. I often gave Sylwia Szwed’s Mundra (“Midwife”) to girls before giving birth. To future parents - Jak kochać dziecko (“How to Love a Child”) by Janusz Korczak, a rarity in a country where Janusz Korczak is much talked about but almost nobody reads him.
Do you have moments of surfeit of reading, would you like to drop it all, not see and not produce letters?
No, sometimes I get so tired that I can no longer do this physically, my eyes are getting tired from looking all day long at screens. But to drop it completely... I recently learned that you can download an episode of a series from Netflix on the phone and watch it on the train where there is no signal. But I don't even consider it, because for me, the train is exactly a place to catch up with reading. It's a time when I don't have to work.
Interviewer: Olga Wróbel
Translated by Justyna Lowe