Learning to Read, Still

Joanna Scott on William Faulkner:
Writing that flirts with incoherence can just as readily flounder as writing characterized by simplicity and composure. There is no reliable formula for originality, and strategies that are distinguished as innovative in their first incarnation can quickly become stale in the hands of lesser artists. It’s all too easy to conflate dense prose or jumbled narrative structures with literary ambition. But in this age of trending and blogging, with paragraphs growing shorter and the spaces between them growing larger, it’s also easy to dismiss the kind of fiction that might not yield readily, docilely, to our first attempt to comprehend it. This is the worry that [C.E.] Morgan and [John Jeremiah] Sullivan express; they know how quickly readers—and writers—will turn away from fiction that dares to cast itself as difficult. Sullivan admits that he has done the same. And when, in The New York Times, a contemporary writer derides Ulysses as “a professor’s book,” he assumes that as readers, we have nothing new to learn.

If, however, we allow ourselves to think of reading as a capacity we keep cultivating, then we have reason to turn to books that have something to teach us about the medium they use to convey meaning. While it can be pleasurable to move speedily through a work of fiction, there’s a different sort of pleasure to be had in lingering, backtracking, rereading the same page. As children know, there’s lots of fun in nonsense. We never stop benefiting from staying flexible, open and responsive, even in the midst of confusion. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to keep learning how to read.
Scott's entire essay is lovely. Faulkner is my favorite American novelist, and his most difficult book, Absalom, Absalom!, is my favorite American novel — partly because when I first read it, I literally threw it across the room three times. But I kept going back. It's not a book I've ever written about or am likely to write about, because each time I read it it opens up new wonders and new perplexities, and I respond to it with awe and terror and humility, not analysis. To write about something that affects you in that way, to reduce it to words other than its own, feels obscene. All I can do is keep reading, and learning to read, the book itself.

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