A Theory of Reading

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Those of you who read this blog frequently know that I am neither a very profound or close reader. I don't spend my time thrashing through the text in search of subtexts, symbols, extended metaphors, semiotic signposts, hegelian dialectic, or any number of the other quixotic treasures hunts often engaged in by professional readers of literature.

Nevertheless, you might also note that I don't shy away from books, either great literature or not-so-great bestseller thrillers. LIke Michael Dirda (a hero of sorts) I enjoy all sorts of books for all sorts of reasons, and some of those reasons might help the reader understand what sorts of books. (Why nonfiction makes up such a small portion of my repertoire.)

For a book to interest me if must have compelling examples of one of three things--magisterial and innovative use of the English language to a purpose (even if the purpose is only pyrotechnics--and I don't think "deconstructing our sensibilities" ranks anywhere at all in a theory of purpose. Frankly, I don't need my sensibilities deconstructed, I'm perfectly happy with them as they are), great story, plot, characters, gimmick, or information that is highly useful to me.

If the book is of the latter form, I've come to expect very low quality prose--writers who have three handsful of thumbs when it comes to any sense of nuance or beauty in the language. And perhaps that is all to the good, because after all the intent is not to dazzle with prose but to convey information. Obviously there are exceptions to the expectation, and each of those is greeted with great joy on my part. (The most recent in my recollection was Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

The thrillers, mysteries, much of the science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels fall into the second category. If there isn't anything there for me in story, plot, gimmick, or character, it can all go away. I read innumerable thrillers and am often disappointed at the conclusion of them. For example, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Cloud have produced a long line of thriller from Relic to the most recent--the title eludes me now, and I read every one of them hoping that the conclusion will be somewhat better or more satisfying than the last such. Hélas, too often it is not so. The same was true for Dean Koontz, up until my fortuitous discovery of the Odd books (thanks Julie).

When it comes to literature, I experience another kind of handicap. Quite frankly, I don't much care what it says about the human condition or society or the plight of _________ (fill in the blank), or humanity's relationship with ____________. Ecclesiastes kind of nailed it, "There is nothing new under the sun." What I care about is the aplomb, finesse, panache, élan, you name it with which it is said. "Ozymandias" is magnificent to me not so much for what it says, which, if one thinks about it, isn't really a new or powerful message for our day--in fact, a true classic will breath out a truth that is for all time and is powerful because it is universal, and therefore, the particulars, the trappings, the environment are what I find compelling and interesting. Taking a recent example--does Faulkner have anything to tell me that is new or different about the human condition? Nothing that hasn't been said since Gilgamesh--but oh, what language he uses to tell me. What a magnificent, rolling, magisterial prose--imbued and soaked in the rhythms and intonations of that Jacobean Classic that has informed so much of English and American literature.

Does Jonathan Edwards have anything different to say to us from preachers and prophets from the time of Melchizidek on? No, not really. And yet those orotund phrases, that rhythm, that high and precise and colorful and powerful and authoratative use of the language. Images that grab the attention and hold it.

It is for these reasons that I find many of the supposedly great books largely inaccessible to me. Dostoevsky may be fantastic, but I am often reading him through a glass seven inches thick--the translator faced with the double bind of conveying the original authors intent and style, often leaves me astounded and exhausted with their own lack of command of the language into which they are translating. I've done some of this myself and so I deeply sympathize with translators, it's a darned difficult task. But the fact that I recognize that does not immediately make the work that I'm trying to read more enjoyable or accessible to me. The only language other than English that I have full enough command of to be able to say anything worthwhile about quality is French. And even there, I fail to see the often sited magnificence of Flaubert or Balzac, while I am still able to appreciate the works and stories in their original tongue.

The point of this--my enthusiasm for great works comes from my engagement in the way the story is told--not so much the elements of the story, which often are as old as the Greek Myths from which they spring. As such, I don't tend to be a profound reader, pulling apart the prose to reveal to the reader the clockwork ticking of the interrelated symbolism. In fact, if it is overt enough for me to notice it, I often find that it is mechanical in the extreme. When on first reading I can say to myself, that is a symbol, it is like a magician whose slight of hand is just a little too slow--the magic is gone and all I can see is the fumbling. Modern works, ironic in the extreme, tend to make a show, a parade of their endless symbols, references, and meanings tend to be spectacular show pieces of the technical skill of the author. (I'm thinking here of cute and coy ploys like the e-mail address in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections --gaddisfly. Franzen so desperately wants to belong to that group of litterateurs associated with the Gaddis circle, it is pitiful to see.) Unfortunately, technical skill without heart doesn't give a reader much of a reason to read.

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Great post Steven. I agree with much. Allusiveness just for the sake of allusiveness strikes me as nothing more than an elaborate "find a word" puzzle in order to make people feel superior to those who didn't find the word (i.e. Franzen). And I don't think I've ever really connected with a translated work (with the exception of the Bible). I recall a friend of mine sending me a compelling excerpt of Brother's K, and I looked it up in my translation and the same paragraph was so flat and banal by comparison. I told him if the whole book was like that excerpt I may have to get his translation. (But I never did.)

Fortunately I think there's more than enough English language writers to keep me in the chips.

While it's eminently true that there's nothing new under the sun, there are things new to me, or at least, things I might learn. So I'm not quite of your school (though, admittedly, I haven't read a fraction of what you have either).



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 29, 2007 7:55 AM.

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