Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reflections on Reading

I've been turning over in my mind, in an abstracted sort of way, some feelings and intuitions I have about reading. I thought I'd try to work them out here in some sort of rough form and see what they might add up to. I've been reading a lot these last few months. Partially that's because I'm retired now and at least theoretically have more time to devote to reading when I choose to do so. But it also has something biorhythmical about it; I've always been a binge reader of sorts. When I'm bingeing, as for example when I fall deep into a novel sequence (Patrick O'Brian's 21 Aubrey-Maturin books, Dorothy Dunnett's 8 volume House of Niccolo series, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes completed of a projected seven), Karl Knausgaard's My Struggle (three volumes out of  seven translated into English so far), I somehow find time to read even when I don't have it. Sometimes a binge will start with reading one book by an author and then working my way everything in print by that author. That started way early, in elementary school with Walter Farley's Black Stallion books, Albert Payson Terhune's dog books, and the like. In late high school I read John Gardner's Sunlight Dialogues and then everything else he ever wrote. More recently, I read (and wrote about) a number of books by Alice McDermott. I've read every one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, and preordered the new one coming out next month. These are only examples; I could cite dozens, maybe hundreds, of others.

But here's the thing: not everything I read sticks with me. There are a lot of books I see that I know that I have read, but if you were to ask me, even a few weeks later, to tell you about a particular book, I'd be hard pressed to tell you much about the plot or the characters or basically anything at all, other than some vague impression of how the book made me feel while I was reading it.

The books that have stayed with me, the ones that live in my head, are the product of a different kind of reading than what I have been describing above. (On a binge I'm reading in big gulps, but it's a present tense experience: now and now and now. And when it's over, it's generally too daunting to go back and try to retrieve and fix the key ideas, to collect and organize my own thoughts, to place the world of the book coherently into the context of the world of my life, or vice versa.) What are the factors that contribute to a book being cemented into my consciousness, so much so that they become permanent fixtures in the furniture of my mind? Here's a preliminary list:

• Writing about the reading. When I take time during a reading to write about what I  am noticing and what I am thinking, I notice more, and I think more deeply, about the material at hand. If I am reading a book that strikes me as I am reading it as a book I want to think well about and remember, I will often begin a reading log expressly for that purpose. There's a tradeoff, of course. Keeping a log slows you down as you read. It colors the reading experience, and sometimes feels like it is artificializing it. Reading and writing and reading and writing is a much more deliberative process, and a reading purist might argue (and I've had students argue, when I've assigned them logs) that keeping a log is too much like work, and interferes with what I (they, one) might prefer to be the pure enjoyment of reading.

Keeping a commonplace book is an alternative, and perhaps less intrusive way of fixing the reading in your memory. In this case, you simply note (via pencil marks or post-its or whatever) passage in the book that seem particularly apt or interesting, and then, either when done reading for the day or done with the work entirely, sit down at a desk and write out the passages, either by hand or via a keyboard. This second-round slow-motion re-assimilation of the words themselves goes a long way toward fixing them in the brain.

One of the arguments advanced in favor of e-readers is that this process can be easily automated: you simply highlight the passages and they wind up being archived in the cloud (Amazon provides this service via the Kindle, for example). I'm not sure I buy it. It's nice to have those passages lined up and available in the event that you want to go back and re-read them, but without the actual work of writing or typing them out yourself, work that allows you to re-process and re-examine the work a second time, the opportunity to hardwire the words into your memory is lost.

• Discussion with other human beings. Here's a perception about my own experience that I believe to be true. I may be mistaken, or partially mistaken. But it seems to me that there are very few books I have ever read and remembered unless I made it my business to talk about the book with other people, and preferably people who have read the book themselves. Taking the same perception from the opposite angle, most of the books that I really have in my head are books that I assigned to my students and discussed with them, in many cases with different groups of students over a period of years, books like All the Pretty Horses. The Poisonwood Bible. Krik, Krak. Macbeth. The Merchant of Venice. Grendel. The Pearl. Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Snow Falling on Cedars. The Sheriff of Nottingham. (Surprised you with that one? Check it out.) Those books are in my head to stay.

• Reading reviews and author interviews. I generally go at this backwards. I read the reviews after I have read the book, in order to a) not to have my experience of the book directed by someone else's framing of it and b) to be able to compare my preliminary notions about the book with someone else's, so that I can begin (or if I have been keeping a log, continue) the process of second-guessing myself.

• Perhaps the most obvious of all: Re-reading. Each time you read a book you are reinforcing the neural pathways already in place, and adding new ones. And books grow with you, and on you, when you go back to them. As Rebecca Mead writes in My Life in Middlemarch,

And as I continue to read and reflect, I also realize that [Eliot] has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character. I know it has become a part of my own experience and my own endurance. Middlemarch inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home; and now, in middle age, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of. (266)

It should be clear by now that what I'm gnawing on here is a pretty old bone: the distinction, in this case with regard to reading, between quantity and quality. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes slower is better. I was thinking to myself the other day that given the diminishing amount of time I have left in my life, I might be better off if, rather than continue my trips to the library, to bookstores, and to Amazon, to make it a project to go back and re-read the books—or at least some of them— that I already have on my shelves, so many of which have erased themselves from my conscious memory. 

Spinoff Questions: Which books are deserving of the kind of concentrated study and attention one might aspire to have in at least some cases? How do we make those calls? Are there some books, any books, that are so central that everyone should read them? (The members of the English department at the school I recently retired from have had some lengthy, and occasionally heated, discussions about exactly that question. For what it's worth, I'm in the camp of those who say nay.) How often, and how well, do you need to process what you read at an optimal level—with all the extra time and effort that entails—to be able to consider yourself to be reasonably well-read? And what would you be sacrificing in other areas of you life in order for you to be able to wear that designation gracefully? Inquiring minds want to know.

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