The Way I Read: Haphazardly

Following Pulitzer celebrates its 4th anniversary this week—that’s right, 4 years (give or take a multi-month outage or two when I disappeared like a magician’s assistant) of non-stop rambles through a very idiosyncratic take on largely forgotten prize-winning American fiction from the period between the world wars, interlaced with a lot of pretty excellent poetry and some navel-gazing about the idea of America (some would call the whole blog navel-gazing, but presumably not you, faithful reader).  Anyway, this would be a great moment to bounce back triumphantly from hiatus with a post on Upton Sinclair‘s Dragon’s Teeth, but truth be told that dazzling volume was only rediscovered yesterday under a pile of papers on what passes for a coffee table here at FP’s palatial digs in an early 20th century Chicago apartment building, and so it’ll be a day or two, at the very least, before I have anything to say about it.  But I could hardly let the moment pass without posting anything, and so I thought it might be a good time to return to my very occasional series “The Way I Read” in which I offer some thoughts about who I think I am as a reader, and invite you to comment a bit on what you make of my thoughts, and how you yourself read.  It seems like a pretty reasonable, maybe even important, sideline to Pulitzer blogging—a way to help provide a little insight into why I see books (and American literature, broadly speaking) the way I do.  Newer arrivals to the blog (and long-time readers who may easily have forgotten the prior posts) can find them all gathered in one place by clicking on this link or by selecting “The Way I Read” from the category dropdown in the right sidebar.

Tonight’s topic?  It’s about time I dealt with one of the most important facts about me as a reader that is totally obscured by this blog project—the remarkably aimless way I approach 95% of the reading in my life.  Here at FP, of course, my “brand” is all about rigidity: I’m not just a “literary blogger”, or a “literary award blogger”, or even a “Pulitzer blogger”.  I’m committed to reading the Puliter Prize winning novels in exact chronological order without exception—no skipping chapters, no skipping books, no peeking ahead.  But that’s not at all how I handle reading normally, and I wonder how similar I am to the rest of you.

It’s one thing, of course, to read whatever I feel like—I do, generally speaking (more on that in a bit), but I figure that’s true of all of us once we’re free of teachers or professors assigning us reading material.  What I think is odd about me, or else what is wonderfully odd about the human race (if you’re all like me in this respect), is how many books I keep spinning at one time.  When I walked through the door this evening, home from work and thinking of picking up a book, I had six books with bookmarks (or folded Post-It notes, or receipts, or whatever’s handy) waiting for me to pick them up.  I’m not talking about books I picked up long ago but have long since forgotten that I was reading.  I’m not counting the book I’m reading aloud to my wife (see a previous Why I Read on that front), or books that are naturally read a bit at a time (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting), or books that get consulted now and then (like an encyclopedia or a travel book).  And I’m not counting the long-neglected Upton Sinclair, even though obviously I intend to pick up that Pulitzer winner and start up from exactly where I left off, nor am I counting the scholarly books I’m reading at work as part of trying to put together a journal article to submit somewhere.  What I am counting is the Dickens novel I’m finally rereading for the first time in 20 years, the book about global warming I realized I needed to re-read now that I’m bringing a human being into the world, the Agatha Christie mystery that P. D. James‘s book on detective fiction reminded me I’d wanted to read, and several other titles scattered from my bedside table to the computer desk.  And depending on what whim seizes me tonight, I may add a seventh to the mix since I brought home this book about the journalists who covered the Nixon/McGovern campaign in 1972 and a blog post today made it sound intriguing enough that I might just have to dive in at once.

Now, these six (or seven) books aren’t all going to be finished—that much I grant you.  Certainly at least one or two, and maybe four or five, of them will fall back into the sea of books that I’d call “our library” if that didn’t make it sound like books and bookshelves were some smaller subset of an apartment largely composed of other things, and of course in fact the book to apartment ratio is much closer to the ocean to land ratio current on the planet Earth.  But the weird thing is that I feel I can fall into and out of these books really easily—that global warming title, for instance, I’m pretty sure I haven’t touched since I moved it from one pile to another last week, and I don’t think I’ve read it since sometime in July.  But if I wanted to read it tonight, I’d pick up exactly where I left off, and feel I was merely continuing an ongoing “read” of the book.  I have no idea how this sounds to you.  It might be you’re saying “Ah yes!  This is what readers do, James: did you really think you were unusual?”  And it might be you’re saying “Ahem: James, if you’re reading more than two books at a time, you don’t get credit for any of them.  Those are the rules, you know.”  To me it feels simultaneously very natural and very silly.  Natural, of course, since no one’s forcing me to behave in this bizarre fashion and so this must be what my brain thinks of as “normal” on some level.  But silly in that I cannot possibly imagine where in my head all these different things are alive—fictive and non-fictive characters and situations bumping into each other like guests at an awkward wedding reception, looking past each other in the hopes that someone they know is already at their assigned table.  All of them are as present to me as if I’d just set them down a little while ago—in old-fashioned computer speak (Millenials, I don’t know if this will make sense to you), they’re in RAM, not ROM—and I can distinguish pretty clearly between a book I read a bit ago and “am still reading”, and a book I read a bit ago and “have stopped reading”, though I’m not always sure how I know this.  This is a modern luxury, of course—I figure that Aristotle and Aquinas couldn’t really have lived like this, since even owning that many books at any time pre-Gutenberg would have been pretty luxurious.  I wonder why it feels so natural to me, then, and where on earth I got the habit (to my knowledge, neither of my parents are like this, and I can’t think of any other “reading role models” off-hand who might have influenced me this direction).

One last (maybe related?) note ties back into what I noted a couple of paragraphs back, when I said that “generally speaking” I read whatever I like.  For some reason, every summer I decide I need to learn something.  I pick a topic (often seemingly at random) and assert that I really need to pick up several books on the topic and get somewhere with them.  Sometimes this is an utter disaster (the Summer of Learning Old English was not a roaring success), and at other times it works marvelously (the Summer of Learning about Climate Change has turned into a lifelong interest).  But regardless, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of an odd thing to do—suddenly select an area of interest and decide that, over the next couple of months, I am committed to reading about it.  Is this my brain trying to steer me onto a better, more focused path?  Or just one more of the many ways I make eccentricity a way of life?  It’s not clear to me.  I certainly read a weird mix of fiction and non-fiction normally, and usually none of the titles relate to each other, outside the parameters of my “summer project”.

Am I overanalyzing?  Almost certainly!  But this is the point of my occasional “The Way I Read” posts: bringing out into the light one of the sides of me as a reader that I figure might be idiosyncratic, and seeing whether it resonates with other folks or not.  I fully intend to keep reading this way in the future: I hardly know how to stop, even if I wanted to.  But I wonder—do you read this way?  If so, I’d love to hear your musings about it, and if not, it would be great to get a glimpse of what reading is like for you.

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The Way I Read: Out Loud

This is the third in a very occasional ongoing series on this blog I call “The Way I Read” (all three installments are available here, for the curious).  This is my attempt to step back a little from my immediate reactions to novels—though have no fear, there will be more on George Apley this weekend at some point—to offer a little more insight into me as a reader.  This insight is offered to me as much as to anybody else, since often I find I haven’t ever considered the idiosyncrasies that make me the reader I am.  For today, I’m pondering how I am affected by my long commitment to reading aloud.

This in part is what is traditionally meant by “reading aloud”—that is, I read aloud to people who listen to me, most usually one person (my wife).  Together we’ve read aloud through books I was sharing with her for the first time (The Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, most memorably), and books that neither of us were familiar with going in (Connie Willis‘s two-part novel Blackout / All Clear and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) are the first titles that occur to me). 

Connie Willis

Connie Willis, the most award-winning American novelist you may never have heard of: if you haven’t read her stuff, make it a priority. She deserves her own post here, sooner or later. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously my reading in these circumstances is profoundly affected by the aspect of performance—at least some of my neurons are devoted to keeping track of which character has what voice, paying attention to my volume so that she can hear me clearly, etc.  Especially for the books that I read this way for the first time, like Connie Willis’s time-travel epic, I wonder how much that multi-level engagement with the text affects my read.  I think in some ways it becomes more emotionally effective—I don’t think I ever felt the impact of the death on the Bridge of Khazad-dum as deeply on my own as when I was experiencing it as my wife’s narrator, for instance.  In other ways, I think it does mean I’m less attentive to little turns of phrase or allusions that I might otherwise catch, since I’m not stopping to re-read (usually), and I generally don’t put the book down to think until we’re done reading for the day.  All of this impacts me as a reader (and as a husband, of course—take it from me, folks, reading aloud together is a wonderful thing for a marriage, or at least for the kind of marriage I have), but it’s not really what I’m thinking of.

What I mean to ponder is the tendency I have had since I was a very small child to read aloud to myself when I am alone.  I did this so often as a kid, usually while reading English novels with Cockney characters, that at one point I had a somewhat pronounced English accent—my mother had trouble explaining her small British child to grocery store clerks, I think.  I eventually figured out how to separate the real world from my wonderful fictional worlds.  But the reading aloud persists: I read the narrator’s part, often, although sometimes in dialogue-heavy books I pick a single character and voice only their dialogue.  Sometimes I read all the parts, but I find that a bit exhausting.  And I should say that this reading approach is intermittent—sometimes I only do it for a chapter or two, or even only a single scene, while sometimes it lasts much of the book.  And many books never get the “read-aloud approach” at all.

I was thinking about this over the last few weeks, and I’m wondering if it affects the books I like and dislike.  I’d imagine that this makes me favor lively narration, or dialogue with a bit of energy to it.  I think it’s possible that I’m always devoting some of my brain’s audio centers to the book—that is, even when I’m reading silently, I think I may be passing the words through a sort of audio filter in my head—and for that reason may favor turns of phrase that sound particularly nice as sounds, independent of their semantic meaning.  Might this make it harder for me to appreciate certain kinds of authors?  I’ve been trying to work that out—you’d think, for example, that this would diminish my appreciation for works in translation (given that the author’s original sound patterns are lost), but I’m a big fan of a wide range of translated fare, from Homer’s Iliad to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges.  This may, of course, merely go to the credit of skilled translators, but I’m not sure—I’ve appreciated Homer in the hands of multiple translators.  There’s a larger question here I don’t know how to address, which is this: why do I read out loud to myself?  I’m honestly not sure.  I’m sure there’s a reason, but it’s buried deep in my past: I learned to read at an unusually young age, but I can’t work out why that would have an effect like this.  It may suggest something deeper in how my brain tackles the act of reading (since, I have to say, the reading aloud happens almost unbidden: it feels like a very natural and almost unconscious act), but I leave that to the neurobiologists in the crowd.

So, my question to you is, is this reading-aloud-to-myself stuff weird?  (I almost asked “Am I weird?” but too many of you know me in real life.)  Is this something that a lot of us readers do and just don’t talk about, or am I part of a small minority?  If anybody out there does this with books, do you have any thoughts to add to my musings above?  And in general, does anybody have thoughts for me about how my approach to reading may affect my reading preferences?  I recognize I’m in uncharted territory here, but I figure a blog about reading has to delve into this kind of very specific personal reflection, at least now and then.  Here’s hoping this little window into my reading practice is at least interesting, if not illuminating.

The Way I Read: Through the eyes of a teacher

I was on the train to Boston when I opened up an old friend, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  Having moved from the West Coast to Chicago two months ago, and having therefore been out of the sight of salt water for one of the longest stretches of my adult life, I was looking forward excitedly to seeing the Atlantic.  I had already planned a little trip to New Bedford, where I would visit the nation’s largest whaling museum and step into the chapel where, in Melville’s novel, Father Mapple preaches a soaring (and prophetic?) sermon on the topic of Jonah and the whale.  In other words, I was in about as perfect a state of mind for reading Moby-Dick as a man can be, short of sharing a bed with a tattooed Maori harpooner or working for a one-legged man who nails gold doubloons to the water cooler and “baptizes” all his memos in pagan blood.  And it was a pretty glorious reading experience, I have to admit.

This isn’t the post where I defend Melville’s novel as one of the greatest epics ever written by an American…I may be forced to do that, at some point, but it’s not what has me thinking tonight.  Instead, what I realized as I read is that my experience with the book has been profoundly altered by the fact that, from 2005 to 2008, I taught the novel every school year to my honors-level American Literature class (given that it was paired with the Advanced Placement course in U.S. History, most of the students would have said they read it in “APUSH”).  Or rather, most of my students would tell you they didn’t read it….well, they tried to, but it was hard for them, or they had a lot of other work, or this “Spark” guy seemed to have gotten the story down pretty well.  This is also not the blog post where I call curses down from heaven on my lazy students for not reading the novel I assigned them.  I did enough of that while grading the Moby-Dick essays, lo, those many years ago.

I hope I’m successfully conveying the mixed feelings I have about having taught a novel I loved and high schoolers are almost genetically predetermined to dislike (or at least find too daunting to really engage with).  A little while after the last time I taught the novel, I read an interview with an American author (a good one, but one whose name escapes me) who says that everyone should read Moby-Dick, but no one should read it before the age of 50.  There’s a side of me that agrees.

Back to me on the train.  What really amazed me as I read was how vividly my reactions were dominated by my having taught the novel—so powerful were these feelings that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read the novel the way I once did.  It’s making me wonder if it will be the same with all the books I loved and taught—The Iliad, or The Great Gatsby, or Macbeth, all of which I have on my shelf, and all of which I have been thinking of picking up for a good re-read.  And I thought I should share some of my thoughts and experiences here in this very occasional “The Way I Read” series, since I’m curious how typical or atypical this is for teachers, and I wonder if students are affected the same way by having first read a book in the context of a class.

Reading Moby-Dick is affected first of all by the emotional highs and lows I went through teaching it.  I hit the Quarter-Deck, Ahab’s first big show-stopper, where he stamps around the deck asking if everyone knows “what they’ve shipped for” and calling out phrases like “A dead whale or a stove boat!”  It’s a hugely theatrical scene, and while reading it I couldn’t shake the memory of my first APUSH class, whose discussions of the novel had been so lifeless that I made them enact the chapter aloud as Reader’s Theatre to try and wake them up, shouting at the class to chime in on the chorus’s lines and pleading with the kids reading harpooners’ roles to make them sound more exotic and fierce.  And then my eyes light on the stage directions that frame the chapter and those following (what a weird, bold, crazy man Melville was!), and I remember a student, Briana, who became fixated with “solving” Melville’s use of the stage directions (why do they appear, what do they signify, are they the key to unlocking the novel’s symbolic meaning), and how awesome it was to have a student that obsessed with a novel they were reading as an assignment.  I remember the worst symbolic interpretations I read, and I find (to my great delight) that the best symbolic interpretive essays I read are actually now part of how I read the novel.  I hit a passage and think how much more resonant an image is if I read the novel the way Tselil did, or John, or Alex.  Those essays (written feverishly the night before, in many cases) are now superimposed on the novel for me, layers of text upon the text that make their own meanings Melville never intended.

This is wonderful.  It also robs me of the ability to read the novel alone, which is very curious—I simply can’t boot all of those voices and faces out of my head, and so I’m reading along with them.  And there are less clearly positive things that come with this too—is it good that, as I read, I keep mentally marking “oh, that would make a good quiz question” or “hmmm, how could I get them to talk about that?”  It’s certainly distracting, but it’s also a pretty high level of engagement with the text.  It means I skip over some things I probably shouldn’t, though.  And some things, I’ll admit, are pretty clearly negative: some of the worst days I had in the classroom were the discussions of chapters (almost) no one had read, or worse, the days where it became obvious we were discussing how to interpret what SparkNotes was telling us, instead of what Melville was saying.  And when I hit those stretches in the novel, it’s hard not to feel myself dragged down a bit, wondering if the book is really as good as I want it to be, remembering what a slog it was in November to be pushing through a novel that was increasingly being read only by me and about six other people.

I’m sharing all of this pretty openly, not to put any former students through a guilt trip (though some of you probably deserve it!), but rather because this is the funny, unexpected consequence of having taught something for that long.  I can’t imagine how it is for some of my colleagues who have taught the same novel for 10 or 20 or 30 years.  So, this is how I read (some things).  I wonder if I’m affected by my having been a teacher in the new books I read (am I silently evaluating them for discussion questions? wondering how I might teach a given theme?).  I wonder what it was really like for me to read Melville the first time—can I recapture those thoughts now, or are they gone forever?  And I admit, I wonder how my former students will read Melville….well, I wonder how the very few of them who will ever pick him up again will read him.  Will they remember what I did?  What parts will be worse for them, or better?  And, as the years go by and the memories fade for all of us, will works like this become less dominated by the classroom?  When I am 60, or 70, or 80 (knock on wood) and reading Moby-Dick on the train to Boston, how many APUSH thoughts will crowd my brain?  Is my shared group experience with this novel a permanent alteration to me as a reader, or just a passing moment in my life that will be gone before too long?  I hope this sparks some thoughts for you, and that perhaps you’ll share your own experiences or ideas about this in the comments section below.  Thanks!

The Way I Read: Do novels ennoble the human condition?

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about books and what I love about them—and one specific book I love (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, about which I am happy to talk if you’re interested).  A classmate/colleague/friend is teaching an online course in which she wanted some recorded examples of regular ol’ library students talking about books, and I was asked to participate.  It was an enormous amount of fun, so much so that to talk excessively about it will seem like bragging, and blogging is already an exercise that makes me feel perilously close to Narcissus at times, so I’ll focus only on one moment that’s sticking with me.  Having spoken about Doomsday Book and why it resonates for me, another classmate/colleague/friend (Althea, who blogs with The Bookaneers—I need to add them to the blogroll in the right sidebar!) commented that the way I often talk about books emphasizes how they inspire optimism about human beings.  I tend to read for (and talk about) things like hope, and courage, and dignity.  I can read very sad or even disturbing books (Doomsday Book is often perilously sad, and another book I love, The Sparrow, is a really harrowing experience to read), but I seem to look for those things, and to savor them when I find them.

I mention this because I think it’s worth pondering as a key to why I’ve reacted to the Pulitzer winners thus far as I have.  His Family, the first novel I read on this quest, has been panned by some of my fellow travelers (the witty and wonderful ladies of Along With A Hammer, to be precise), and I get why they disliked it.  But I found it really comforting, and as I look back I think it’s because it emphasized that sunny-eyed hope of a better world that had not quite lost out to jaded cynicism yet in 1918.  I think my attachment to One of Ours, a Willa Cather novel that was also pretty darn idealistic, is another example of this kind of reading.  I like reading the way I do, but I wonder if it will make me miss out on really good books that do not quite brim with hope.  I don’t care for saccharine things, so I don’t fear that I’ll “overindulge” in some really excessively sentimental writing, but I worry that I can be too dismissive of the bleaker stuff.

I share this just because I’m pondering it.  I’m wondering if The Age of Innocence shows anything noble about humans (if so, I’d love opinions as to why, and if not, I’m wondering why I fell in love with it).  I’m wondering if I’d have responded better to a novel like Arrowsmith or Alice Adams (sorry, Able McLaughlins, but no amount of reflection could salvage your reputation) if I was a little more open to that more cutting, sarcastic, cynical perspective that I think both Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington really thrived on.  And I’m wondering if in the long run this way of reading serves me well or not—whether it’s this kind of search for optimism that makes literature such a sustaining presence in my life, or if I risk becoming a 21st century Miss Prism, primly informing people from my pedestal that to be a good novel, the good must end happily and the wicked unhappily, for that is the meaning of fiction.  I threw down American Gods by Neil Gaiman after 50 pages of despair, after all: I make drastic decisions about books (even books beloved by people I respect), and I wonder what this is symptomatic of.  Comments are, as always, welcome, but if none appear, I’m sure I’ll muse on this again before too long, especially once I pick up Laughing Boy again.  Happy reading!