Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 18 January 2008

Come closer… closer… closer…

During an interview Oprah Winfrey asked the Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison: “Do people ever say they have to go over certain passages a bunch of times?” to which Morrison replied: “That, my dear, is called reading.”

I've written about reading before but I'd like to dwell a bit on close reading. Vladimir Nabokov suggested that, "In reading, one should notice and fondle the details." Consider for a moment the concept of speed-fondling. Okay, it's a fun concept, take a few more seconds – enjoy.

Right. Enough of that you at the back. Pay attention.

Close reading is not slow reading although reading slowly helps. A better description might be careful reading but really the term needs to be expanded on rather than simply trying to find another potted expression to explain it. When you're watching television or a movie you have the benefit of audio and visual cues, the tone of voice, the glint of an eye, even the background music, but with the written word these are often either absent or only suggested. Let's consider another quote by Nabokov: "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only re-read it."

If ever a sentence needed close reading that one does.

Reading begins with knowledge. You read the words and you know what each of them means in their own right. If not, you look them up. Fine, we know what he's saying.

The next step is thought, we think about what he's saying. You can't re-anything that you've not done before so Nabokov is clearly not saying what he means. Why not? Did his parents not tell him, "Say what you mean and mean what you say?" By making his point in this way, by forcing you to consider what he's saying, the author is packaging his meaning like an advertising slogan (e.g. The Audience is listeningTHX (What else would they be doing?)).

The third step is understanding. Ah! Yes! What he is saying is that reading is a process that takes time. Let's consider a movie example. Most people have seen Airplane! more than once but who of you out there caught every running gag, parody, double entendre, visual pun, cameo and sly comment inserted in the credits the first time round? I don't see any hands raised and mine certainly isn’t and that goes for the second, third, fourth and fifth viewings. I'm human; while I'm processing one gag or wiping my eyes I'm missing another. Once my memory starts to kick in I can start to fill in the blanks, I begin to watch what's going on in the background because I know what's going on in the foreground pretty much by heart now.

What Nabokov meant by this odd little remark is that the first time we read a book we are so busy absorbing raw data that we can't appreciate all the subtle connections there may be between its parts – because we don't yet have the complete picture before us. A whodunit is a good example, whether one you've read or one you've watched, it's not until the second viewing you can appreciate the clues, red herrings and MacGuffins that the writer has inserted to make your viewing/reading pleasure all the more enjoyable.

Lastly, but not inevitably, we come to insight: how does this affect me? Should this affect me? Will this affect me? In the case of Nabokov's sentence the answer should be, yes, I will read with more care from now on. Over 300 words of "thinking" to "read" a 12 word sentence.

Okay, I'm not saying you should stop after every sentence and meditate for five minutes but I am saying that reading is a skill and most of us are amateurs. An eight year old can read but no one would buy him Finnegans Wake for Xmas and yet there are groups out there who meet on a regular basis to discuss this one single book. Here's a list of some.

Just because we're adults we assume we can read pretty much anything. Growing older does not guarantee growing better or wiser or anything else. If you stopped reading at eight then you have the reading skills of an eight year old. But, to be as obtuse as Nabokov, there's reading and then there's reading. Try reading this:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

It's the opening two paragraphs to that Finnegans Wake I was on about.

Why – the question is simply screaming to be asked – would anyone write something so ruddy difficult? Wrong question. Why, seeing that it is so ruddy difficult, do so many people devote so much time to try and comprehend it? That is a much better question.

In his article What is Close Reading? Roy Johnson breaks down close reading under four headings:

Linguistic reading is largely descriptive. We are noting what is in the text and naming its parts for possible use in the next stage of reading.

Semantic reading is cognitive. That is, we need to understand what the words are telling us - both at a surface and maybe at an implicit level.

Structural reading is analytic. We must assess, examine, sift, and judge a large number of items from within the text in their relationships to each other.

Cultural reading is interpretive. We offer judgements on the work in its general relationship to a large body of cultural material outside it.

The first and second of these stages are the sorts of activity designated as 'Beginners' level; the third takes us to 'Intermediate'; and the fourth to 'Advanced'.

In three words: read, think, conclude. And by "conclude" I don't mean "stop reading", I mean "reach a conclusion".

The Literary Link has an interesting web page that expands these four pointers up to ten things you should be looking at in any piece of work: literal content, figurative language, diction, style, characterisation, tone, structure, context, texture and theme. Only then will you be able to fully assess the piece and be in a position to explain it. Pick any book you've read and try and explain it and you start to realise you've not read it nearly as well as you thought you did. I found this when I started filling in my back catalogue on Goodreads. There were books I had read only a few months earlier that I could remember next to nothing about.

A lot of people read for relaxation. And there are books for that purpose. They're the drink equivalent of diet coke. Reading can also be work. Work is not a bad thing. And there's nothing more satisfying than a job well done. You feel like you've achieved something.

So, with the forgoing in mind, can I leave you with something to read? It's about reading.

A Poem is not an Empty Room

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Pascal

A man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.

That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.

Entering the room
is significant.
Being in the room
is significant.

Where the room is
is irrelevant.
Who the man is
is not important.

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting.

Wednesday, 05 December 2007


Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...

After posting "It's How He Sees It" last Feb, I received two emails developing an aspect of literary theory that I had touched on: the possibility that a work might possess content, even contradictory content, which the author did not knowingly include and of which he had no conscious knowledge. I was grateful to the sender for referring me to an essay by Pierre Macherey, The Text Says What It Does Not Say, which I later read in lengthy extracts. For anyone who is interested in the subject (deconstruction of texts) I can recommend as an introduction a Literary Studies piece intended for Third Year Undergraduates. Thinking on these things - and the idea, outlined in the Lit Studies piece, that the "meaning" of a literary work resides in its incompleteness, its "gaps and silences" - I was reminded of the question attributed to Basho, the seventeenth century master of the Haiku: "Is there any good in saying everything?" An illustration I have seen given with the quotation, comes from the modern art of photography: "The poet makes the exposure, leaving the reader to develop it." I leave you to develop that thought.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've been pottering around with a post about Browning which needs a bit of direction - this looks like it could be very useful. Thank you, Dave.

Roberta S said...

I certainly get what you have said about reading, Jim. From my own experience I have observed too many that bolt the words, stuff them all in at once, and fail to digest them.

My mother used to encourage us at dinner to chew each mouthful 18 times so that we could properly digest it. The same might be said for reading.

Conda Douglas said...

Basho was one of my senior intensives in college, Dave. For months, I struggled with what to say, because Basho's spaces said it. In the end, I produced a 30 page standard "college speak" paper which earned me an "A" but no pride.

And Jim, this post reminded me of how I read and then re-read my favorite books in childhood and up until college. Every reading I discovered something new, something different. So why do I now find myself not even close reading? It's not always the quality of the work. It's the quality of my attention which has suffered.

Poet Hound said...

I think the poem at the end is perfect for your discussion on reading. It drives home the idea of reading for significance as opposed to mere entertainment.

Jim Murdoch said...

Conda / Roberta – yes, I'm sure very few of us relishes reading the way we once did when it was new and fresh and had lost none of its magic. Now I find myself re-reading because I can't remember the paragraph I've just read.

Poet Hound – yes, I was quite pleased with this one. I've since added a quote just under the title: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Pascal which I think adds to the piece.

The aim of the poem is to mimic the contemplative poetry Dave and Conda reference; I've always liked haiku but it's a form I find hard to do well. What I hate are those Zen koans that have no answer so I made sure this one had a pretty obvious answer.

Anonymous said...

I have always been a slow reader, but never found the motivation to quicken the pace. It seemed silly to rush through when so much could be savored. How would I learn anything if I didn't listen? Speed reading seems like gluttony, and last I heard gluttony was still a sin.

Perhaps it's like tasting wine. Some could guzzle down a vintage bottle, burp loudly, and ask what the big deal might be. Others will sip and savor its complex flavors.

Unfortunately, my pallet isn't developed enough right now to appreciate Finnegan's Wake.

Conda Douglas said...

Jim commented: Now I find myself re-reading because I can't remember the paragraph I've just read.

Sigh. Me too.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Jim. I will be back to read you often
...and slowly.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Shelley. I've had a look at your site and I'll be keeping an eye on it in the future.

Anonymous said...

Love the poem.

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