Ways of Reading

Ron Silliman has written an interesting post about, among other things, how he reads:
I’m always reading a dozen books at once, sometimes twice that many. [...] In part, this reading style is because I have an aversion to the immersive experience that is possible with literature. Sometimes, especially if I’m "away" on vacation, I’ll plop down in a deck chair on a porch somewhere with a big stack of books of poetry, ten or twelve at a time, reading maybe up to ten pages in a book, then moving it to a growing stack on the far side of the chair until I’ve gone through the entire pile. Then I start over in the other direction. I can keep myself entertained like this for hours. That is pretty close to my idea of the perfect vacation.
I’ve had this style of reading now for some 50 years – it’s not something I’m too likely to change – but I’ve long realized that this is profoundly not what some people want from their literature, and it’s the polar opposite of the experience of "getting lost" in a summer novel, say. Having been raised, as I was, by a grandmother who had long psychotic episodes makes one wary of the notion of "getting lost" in the fantasy life of another.
(This reminds me of something Alice Munro wrote in the introduction to her Selected Stories: "I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction.")

Hearing how someone else reads can be, for me at least, both exciting and alienating.  Exciting because it often explains at least something about their reading taste; alienating because it reminds me what an individual experience reading is.  I first encountered this most forcefully when I read Samuel Delany's early essay "About 5,750 Words", in which he presents his own very visual way of interpreting a text as if it is the way everybody reads -- the essay was a revelation to me because I don't build a text in my brain in anything like that method.  

For me, a text is an aural experience first, and the first bits of meaning I get from words and sentences are not visual, even if the word itself has a visual meaning: the phrase the blue room to me is first its related vowel sounds, then a meaning that it's hard to represent with words, but is basically "a space of color" (with the room part taking precedence in my mind, the actual color blue nowhere in sight yet), then finally a vague visual image in my mind, sort of like you'd get in one of the first computer games to have graphics, or in a really basic CAD drawing.  If the room becomes an important part of the paragraph or page, I'll probably visualize one of the four or five prop rooms I keep in my memory: the living room at a childhood friend's house, an apartment I once lived in, a set from a movie I've watched a lot, etc.  (One of the reasons I think I respond so strongly to movies is that they allow an experience I can't get from reading -- a visual experience.)

How we read determines, I expect, a lot about what we read.  My indifference to Victorian novels comes partly from my indifference to scenes that are described in detail; because my brain doesn't create vividly visual scenery, all the detail is clotting matter.  (I love the first pages of Bleak House because of the rhythms of the fragmented sentences, but that's enough for me.  I wouldn't want to read an entire book written that way, and the rest of Bleak House makes my brain feel like my stomach would if I ate a couple pounds of pure cholesterol.)  Dialogue, though, is something I respond strongly to because the first thing my brain does with text is imagine sound from it.  This is also one of the reasons I'm a fairly slow reader -- to read quickly, you can't be hearing all the words.

Often, it seems, we turn our ways of reading into prescriptions for reading: because I read this way, it is a meaningful and good way to read -- and then we go on to think that writers should write in a way that appeals to our own particular way of reading.  (Notice how Silliman equates the way he doesn't read with psychosis.)

A visual reader and an aural reader will probably have quite different tastes and habits in reading, just as someone who likes reading a bunch of books at once, sampling around in them, will probably have quite different tastes from a reader who prefers to read immersively one book at a time.  One of the pleasures of critical writing is to see how a reader with, perhaps, a different way of reading from you makes sense of a text.  These days, I find myself especially attracted to criticism that is more explicative and analytical than evaluative, because what I want to see is not whether to value a text, but how to value it -- what do different ways of reading do to the words on the page?  Unless I get a brain transplant, I'm never going to read all of Bleak House immersively or with pleasure, but that only increases the usefulness for me of an essay by someone who has read Bleak House immersively and with pleasure: such an essay is as close as I'm likely to get to a momentary brain transplant.

Some of this may also explain my hostility to the idea that authorial intention should have relevance for a reader.  I'm no New Critic, but I am fond of Barthes, so I get to the intentional fallacy by way of the death of the author, plus a wink of Wittgenstein and a dash of Derrida.  I'm often curious for reasons of history and material production about how a writer wrote or thought about what they created, but when it comes to the text itself, that is an object offering all sorts of opportunities and almost infinite choices for ways of reading.

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