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Friday, September 26, 2014

The Trials of Trying to Be a Better Reader

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 

Dr. Seuss

Early last week the Flophouse experienced a most fortuitous event:  our Internet connection died.  That's right, over four days of no access to email, on-line media and all the other goodies at one's fingertips.

Once past the whining "Whatever shall I do?"  I picked up two books that I had been trying to read in fits and starts over the past few months and finally finished them:  Imaginary Homelands and  Great Books.  The first is a set of really fine essays covering a wide variety of topics by the famous novelist Salman Rushdie.  The second is a tale about second chances and how a man exposed to the Great Books in his youth goes back to university to read them again decades later.  These are fine books and I liked them both for different reasons.

Rushdie is simply a master essayist and could write beautifully on any topic.  David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker and not nearly as good a writer as Rushdie but could you imagine a juicier topic?  Family man nearing middle-age heading back to university to read Homer again (and discover Virginia Woolf for the first time).

I finished both, the Internet magically came back to life after the intervention of a technician from Orange, and, as I sat down to deal with my overflowing email in-box, I felt no sense of relief or gratitude.  I went from the world of slow reading and contemplation to "staccato signals of constant information."   Perhaps it's my age but I realized that I can't do both.  I can't give a good book my full attention and be jumping up every few minutes to check the latest link or missive that has just popped up on my screen.

So my resolve is to do for myself what the storm did for me last week:  shut the Internet down every day.  

Is that all there is to it?  Shut down the Internet and instantly become a better reader?  No, I think this is simply a first step - a reversal of pernicious habits acquired over the course of years.

I never have a destination in mind as I make my book selections, but oddly enough I tend to stumble on things that turn out to be more or less what I need at any particular moment (a lot like going to an AA meeting.)  And so, as I was hardening my resolve to limit my on-line life, I came across Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, a title that is easy to mock, and yet...

A surprisingly good read.  Some of my pleasure was surely in finding that what I have always been told are bad habits, are, in his view, perfectly reasonable things to do while reading.  Like taking copious notes on the inside cover, foxing pages, writing in the margins, highlighting, and even skimming (he calls this "Inspectional reading").  For deeper levels of reading (analytical and syntopical) he gives a guide to how to go about it:  the tasks, the questions to ask and answer.  

Very useful for reading non-fiction (what he calls practical and theoretical "expository" books).  What about fiction? Or poetry?    "Read it quickly," he says, "and with total immersion."  Suspend your disbelief, enter the world of the author, and don't puzzle over things and characters you don't understand right away. In short, give it a chance to work its magic - something that takes time and attention.  As for poetry, read it once and then it read it again out loud. (This also applies to Saint Augustine's Confessions which were probably spoken live to an audience.)

Most of Adler's book is very precise and sometimes a bit pedantic.  Where he becomes vague is when he talks about what to read.
You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity.  You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head.
And then, in the appendix, he has a list of books that are difficult reads and are likely to be a stretch for many of us.  Fair enough and having read some of the books on his list, I think he's right.

But I think he underestimated the prejudices we bring to certain books and our own arrogance.  There are books we pick up and because of the genre or the cover or some signal that we latch on to unconsciously, we assume from the start that the book is a "light read" or "trash" and we treat it as such.  And then something happens to us once we've finished it:  as hard as we try, we can't stop thinking about it.

I have a couple of books like this on my Best Reads list and I will give you one of them as an example.  I have read it twice and it still bothers me:  The Reluctant Dom by Tymber Dalton.  If you read the title and thought Fifty Shades of Grey, you are kind of right.  It is one of those modern erotic romances with BDSM and polyamory and stuff that seems to shock even the most modern and liberal of sensibilities.  I have struggled mightily to express why I think the book is much more than that and can be read and re-read on different levels.  Here is one stab at it (my latest):
A modern couple very much in love but one partner has come to the marriage deeply damaged.  Completely by accident they find a way of coping together which is deeply satisfying for both of them but is outside the boundaries of what the larger society finds "normal".   The stakes are very high:  it's not whether or not the two will stay together, but whether or not the wife will live or die.  And then the husband, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and while his death is certain, he commits himself to his wife's survival.  That means bringing in another person and trying to build intentionally what he and his wife came to accidentally.  Right up to the very end of the book, it is not clear if this is going to work or not,  with terrible consequences if it doesn't.
There is nothing simple about this tale.  It was, and still is, a stretch for me.  Not because the language is difficult (Dalton is a good writer) but because wrapping your mind around all that's going on this book is hard if you read it as something more than just erotica.

So, from Rushdie to Denby, from Great Books to ones that will never be part of any canon but are considered to be worthwhile, I think "free range reading" is important and time should be allocated to it:  picking up a book at random, or even better picking one from a genre that you don't usually read (and perhaps have strong prejudices about) and giving it a fair reading.   That's how I found The Reluctant Dom, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter and Clifford Geertz's Interpretation of Cultures.  

I suspect that Adler would have applauded two out of three; but he's dead and I'm not reading for his or anyone else's approval.

Time to shut down the computer, work in the garden and then set myself to some serious reading this afternoon.  Have a lovely day, everyone.


Nina Tichman said...

Wonderful book about reading: "How Fiction Works" by James Wood
Wonderful book, in case you haven´t gotten to it yet: "Stoner" by John Williams104

Leslie in Portland, Oregon said...

I appreciate your comments on your time without an Internet connection. I recently discovered the pervasive value of living without the Web when I spent six summer days living in a cabin by a mountain lake with no telephone, cell phone, computer or television. I spent most of those days reading, talking with my husband, enjoying the glories outside (including swimming and kayaking with him and our dogs in and on the lake.) It was heaven. Now, I check my email just once each day, strictly limit my time on the web, rarely turn on our very old television and carry my(non-smartphone) cell phone only for emergencies. In just three weeks, those steps have made a substantial difference in my life. Simply put, I'm rediscovering my ability to focus and savor, including while reading.
Please continue to write about reading. Your suggestions are inspiring and energizing.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Nina I got and read the James Wood book. What a read! Stoner is one the list but first I'm going back to an old love, George Orwell. It's been too long...

@Mr. Weismann, I will check it out. Thank you.

@Leslie, Sure sounds like heaven to me. From your comment I think we found something very similar. "Focus and savor" - that's it exactly. I will continue to write about reading (and writing). AFter I wrote that post I decided to tackle a book that I have never read and hd very deep prejudices about: From Here to Eternity. I suppose I looked at it the same way some fellows I know look at "chick-lit" (man-lit?)

Boy, was I an idiot. What an incredible novel - great story, amazing cast of characters and what luck to read it at a time when it was decided to reissue it and put back in everything that the censors/editors/published took out. Best book I've read in YEARS.