Saturday, December 23, 2006

Close Reading

In the August 2006 issue of the Atlantic, Francine Prose published an article called "Close Reading." It turns out that that article serves as the bulk of the introductory chapter to her new book, Reading Like a Writer, which I discovered at the bookstore last week and have begun reading this week. It's a book intended for readers, writers, and teachers, and it consists largely of Francine Prose citing and commenting specific passages from a wide range of authors, with particular attention to articles of craft and the aesthetics of language. In an interview posted on the Atlantic's web page, she says.

I think the most important thing—and it’s what I say in the book over and over—is to focus on what’s directly in front of you on the page; to read especially for the language. Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class—or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language. I think there are writers who would be read more—and, conversely, writers who would never be read at all—if people actually looked at how well or how badly they wrote. In most cases, I would rather read something that’s written beautifully and doesn’t grapple with grand themes than something apparently slighter that actually has a kind of marvelous and fresh and invigorating approach to the language.

So that's what she attends to primarily in this book: the way writers use language. Her examples are entertaining and instructive, and she writes with clarity and assurance. So I recommend the book on those grounds. If you are interested in the process of being a reader, of how you might teach yourself (or your students) to read well, or at least better, than this book is for you.

But the passage in the introduction that most caught my attention—mostly because I just spent a number of hours writing about my own beginnings as a reader—was this one:

We all being as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, means that we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, that we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.

The more we read, the more rapidly we are able to perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.

At first, the thrill of our own brand-new expertise is all we ask or expect from Dick and Jane. But soon we begin to ask what else those marks on the page can give us. We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

As a child, I was drawn to the works of the great escapist children's writers. I like trading my familiar world for the London of the four children whose nanny parachuted into their lives with her umbrella and who turned the most routine shopping trip into a magical outing. I would gladly have followed the White Rabbit down into the rabbit hole and had tea with the Mad Hatter. I loved novels in which children stepped through portals—a garden door, a wardrobe—into an alternate universe.

Children love the imagination, with its kaleidoscopic possibilities and its protest against the way children are always being told exactly what's true and what's false, what's real and what's illusion. Perhaps my taste in reading had something to do with the limitations I was discovering, day by day: the brick walls of time and space, science and probability, to say nothing of whatever messages I was picking up from the culture. I liked novels with plucky heroines like Pippi Longstocking, the astringent Jane Eyre, and the daughters in Little Women, girls whose resourcefulness and intelligence don't automatically exclude them from the pleasures of male attention.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly. On one family vacation, my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon.

All of which makes complete sense to me, and mirrors my own experience. We often think or speak of reading as being "broadening." But I think Francine Prose has hit on two dimensions of that broadness which are significant but not obvious: firstly that what we read is, or at least can be, an act of assertion, of resistance to the constraints of parental and societal attempts to define us. (Not to mention the harder-edged "walls of time and space, science and probability.") Secondly, that reading allows us to escape—or at least provides the illlusion of escape—from our bodies entirely. I remember writing a note to myself in my journal a number of years ago, in the form of a question: When you're deeply engrossed in a book, where exactly are you? It's still an interesting question.


alexanderhayes said...

- When you're deeply engrossed in a book, where exactly are you? -

G'day Bruce.

When I'm deeply engrossed with a book, legs tucked up,I'm anywhere and everywhere at once, nowhere in particular and still at the centre of my core self.

The somewhere else that you speak of, for me, resonates most clearly when as you've done, provided yourself with somewhere to do nothing or little , all at once.

Sometimes it all gets a little too confusing and it all starts swimming around like an inner mind fish.

It's an honour to be in your blogroll for when the worlds seems absurd and you need a little educationally sound comic relief.


Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, AH. I've swum a bit in those waters, and enjoyed the the posts in the link you sent above. Looks like you've been on dry land for a bit, though. Planning to go back in?

- B

C. Watson said...

B - I just found this book in my stocking. Plenty of rainy Northwest afternoons ripe for reading. More comments to come.