Monthly Archives: April 2006

Reading is my default mode

I’ve said and I’ve heard other bloggers say that those who claim they don’t have time for reading aren’t making any sense whatsoever. If you want to read, you will find time. Saying you don’t have time is a way of finding an excuse for not doing what you don’t really want to do anyway. I fit reading into every unfilled corner of my life, and I don’t feel like this takes any special effort. It’s just natural. People might be amused to watch my husband and I eat meals – except for lunch at work we eat most meals together and sometimes even at work we do – and it consists mainly of us shoveling food into our mouths while we devour our reading with equal pleasure. We eat fast so that we can get upstairs to a more comfortable place to read. We have “family dinners” all right, but we don’t talk to each other: we read. We have a stack of magazines on our table, so an article is always handy, and I know well the difficulty of holding on to a book while eating something like tacos or a messy sandwich that requires two hands. Magazines are a good solution to that problem.

I do want to recognize, however, that there ARE people who really, truly don’t have time to read. I’m thinking of, say, someone who works two jobs or a single parent trying to hold down a job, or two jobs. Having time for reading is, to a certain extent, a middle-class privilege. I say that reading is natural, as natural as breathing, and it is, but … it’s not. If you know something about 18th-century culture, you know that reading is connected, in however complicated a fashion, with the growth of the middle class and of leisure time. Yes, probably anyone anywhere can fit in a little bit of reading every day, but I can see having to work so hard, and worrying so much about money and food that reading becomes less important and a person loses the energy for it. Ehrenreich’s book on low-wage workers reminds me of this.

But I think when I and other people criticize others for not having time to read, we aren’t talking about the poor, we are talking about middle-class people who choose to keep themselves busy with other things. I just don’t like the idea of not recognizing that some people’s lives are so difficult that it really would be a struggle to find time to read. And that some people have never learned to love to read because they didn’t have parents who read, or because their education sucked. And I don’t like the idea of looking down on people who make different choices than I do, although I know I’m guilty of doing this. Okay, I DO like looking down on people who make different choices than I do, but I realize I shouldn’t.

I added the Alberto Manguel quotation above as my “blog description” because it captures so beautifully how I feel about reading: it’s almost as natural as breathing. It’s something I do without even thinking about it. And, I should probably clarify, Manguel isn’t talking solely about reading books; he’s talking about reading the stars, the landscape, animal tracks, tarot cards, another person’s face. In this broader sense, we all do read, all the time.

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Rereading

It’s a gloomy, rainy Saturday, which makes it a perfect day to stay inside and read, which is exactly what I’m doing. Since I took a long bike ride yesterday, I am content to be sedentary today.

I’ve been thinking about reading and rereading recently, after I discussed an excerpt from Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies with my students. This excerpt discussed intensive and extensive reading, or reading the same things over and over (a common practice when books weren’t plentiful) versus reading things only once and moving quickly from one thing to the next. Birkerts makes an argument for the value of intensive reading, for knowing texts deeply and intimately and for devoting time to contemplating their meanings. This is one way to develop wisdom, a quality he thinks we’re in danger of losing.

I’m not impressed by this argument about wisdom, and I don’t generally buy claims that bemoan the ways things are deteriorating in these horrible modern times, but I do like the idea of intensive reading. As someone who’s spent quite a few years studying literature, I like rereading texts, contemplating them, reading other people’s ideas about them, writing about them, maybe even gaining a little wisdom from them. But, of course, there are so many things to read, and I want to read as many of them as I can. I generally read extensively — moving from one new book to the next — but sometimes I get a longing to reread something, anything. I want the feeling of coming back to a familiar story. And I’ve heard multiple people saying something along the lines of “You haven’t really read a book until you read it the second time,” which I believe, in a way. The first time through, you are orienting yourself, learning the basics of the text, and the second time through you can pay attention to the finer points and understand more about what the author is doing. But I can’t read everything multiple times, even things I love.

So I’m torn, wanting both to get to all those books that sound so great, and wanting to linger over the ones I like, reading and rereading them. Usually newness wins out.

How many of you reread things? Do you often reread?

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Friday reading and riding report

It was a beautiful day for riding. I just got back from a 35-mile ride, which is medium-long for me at this point in the season, and it felt great. Low 60’s, sunny, the leaves just beginning to appear, lots of pretty back roads to ride on around here. On Wednesday’s ride, however, I experienced one of the problems cyclists occasionally have: swallowing a bug. You are riding along, working hard, breathing heavily, and all the sudden one flies into your mouth and before you know it, it’s down your throat. Actually, it would have been better for me if I had swallowed this particular bug. It flew straight toward the back of my throat where it stayed lodged for a while. I tried to swallow it, it being small and hard to get out. I drank some water to wash it down. But then I kept coughing and coughing until finally I coughed it up. Grossed out? I’m dreading the day I have a confrontation with a squirrel who heads straight for my spokes. That would be gross.

On the reading front — I’ve been playing around with reading a bunch of books at once, and I’ve decided I like it. It’s probably best, though, when I’m not too terribly busy; if I had limited time to read, I think I’d want to focus on just one thing. But my life right now is such that I have a decent amount of time to read, and reading a bunch of books allows me some variety and makes it easier to read things like poetry, that require more concentration. I spend a little time concentrating on the more challenging reading, and then move on to something easier, and that way I get more variety. I’ve been extremely happy reading A History of Reading, but I’m guessing at some point this weekend, I’m going to pick up a novel. On deck: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

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The REALLY dead women writers meme

I’ve linked to this before, but Bardiac has updated her list of early women writers. There are lots of great writers here!

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Subversive reading

I’m loving Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, and I’ll probably be posting about it quite a bit. If you love reading and love thinking about reading in a more theoretical and historical kind of way, you’ll love this book.

So we all know how reading can be subversive; Manguel talks about how totalitarian governments fear reading and readers. What intrigues me in the passage I’m now reading is the way he connects this subversion to silent reading, as opposed to reading out loud, which, back in much earlier times, was the norm. People would read everything out loud, usually to an audience or with a group of people also reading out loud (imagine the noise!). To describe this shift, he mentions the famous scene in St. Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine is amazed and puzzled at Ambrose’s silent reading. Reading that is done out loud is more subject to explanation and interpretation by someone else; it is more of a public act, more of a communal one: “Reading out loud with someone else in the room implied shared reading, deliberate or not,” Manguel says.

But silent reading allows more room for private thoughts:

The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal … and the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.

This, as you might imagine, made people nervous. Silent reading leads to idleness and day-dreaming – and to heresy:

A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular “refreshing of the mind,” in Augustine’s happy phrase.


Until silent reading became the norm, Manguel says, heresies were usually individual and small-scale. Silent reading, however, made it possible for heresies to spread and become large movements.

Here’s to silent reading! Here’s to heresy!

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Sacred Reading

I’ve begun Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, and so far I like it. Manguel says some cool stuff about reading sacred texts:

In sacred texts, where every letter and the number of letters and their order were dictated by the godhead, full comprehension required not only the eyes but also the rest of the body: swaying to the cadence of the sentences and lifting to one’s lips the holy words, so that nothing of the divine could be lost in the reading. My grandmother read the Old Testament in this manner, mouthing the words and moving her body back and forth to the rhythm of her prayer.

The body gets involved in reading in the Islamic tradition too:

The legal scholar and theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali established a series of rules for studying the Koran in which reading and hearing the text read became part of the same holy act. Rule number five established that the reader must follow the text slowly and distinctly in order to reflect on
what he was reading. Rule number six was “for weeping …. If you do not weep naturally, then force yourself to weep”, since grief should be implicit in the apprehension of the sacred words.

Even if, like me, you aren’t a particularly religious person, you might also find this description moving. I think it’s interesting to consider words or the experience of reading as potentially sacred, even if one doesn’t believe in the sacredness of one particular text or doesn’t believe in a transcendent God. Maybe the act of reading itself can be a sacred thing — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, etc., a form of communing with other people — rather than any particular text.

I also like the way he talks about reading as physical as well as mental, and as so complex, it involves the whole person. We usually think of reading as solely mental, not involving the body at all, beyond the obvious way the eyes and brain are involved, but Manguel writes about reading as an act that involves the whole person, thoughts, emotions, memories, and the body. It’s so hard not to think dualistically, about both reading and religious experiences – reading is seen as mental, not physical, worship can be seen, as it often is in Christianity (although not always), as solely spiritual, not physical. But it’s not so simple as that.

Here is Manguel’s take on a passage from Oliver Sacks:

Dr. Oliver Sacks argued that “speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone …. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition.” Much the same can be said of reading: following the text, the reader utters its meaning through a vastly entangled method of learned significances, social conventions, previous readings, personal experience and private taste …. In order to extract a message from that system of black and white signs, I first apprehend the system in an apparently erratic manner, through fickle eyes, and then reconstruct the code of signs through a connecting chain of processing neurons in my brain – a chain that varies according to the nature of the text I’m reading – and imbue that text with something – emotion, physical sentience, intuition, knowledge, soul – that depends on who I am and how I became who I am.

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Howards End

I finished Howards End last night. I very much enjoyed reading the book, although I made the mistake of reading some of the criticism that comes with my edition right away and therefore marring the original impression I had. I have a Bedford “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition, which has a lot of essays from different schools of theory. I didn’t read much, just skimmed a bit, but I read some criticisms of the book I wasn’t ready to hear. I like to just enjoy a book for a while if I can, and then think critically about it later.

Anyway, I thought it was an enjoyable read, plot-wise, and I liked the way Forster integrated his ideas and themes into the storytelling. This, however, is something Virginia Woolf didn’t like; she says Forster’s characters aren’t really characters but are simply ways of making his point. It didn’t feel that way to me – I thought the characters were interesting and believable, most of them; that the plot was engaging, although maybe clumsy in places; and that the ideas were important and ever-present, but that they didn’t threaten to turn the whole thing into a work of sociology or philosophy, as they might. I didn’t feel like I was being preached to.

I was interested in the ecological stuff going on in the book, about how people’s relationship to the land is threatened by the fast pace of life, how the automobile changes the landscape and our relationship to it, and how the city and suburbs are encroaching on the countryside. I liked the description of Margaret’s disorientation when she rides in a “motorcar” and loses her sense of space and place. She battles against a feeling of “flux”:

Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

I suppose one of the flaws of the book is the way Forster gets metaphysical in a vague way, like in that last sentence – what exactly does he mean by Love? But I was struck by how modern all this sounds. Trees and meadows and mountains are all too often a spectacle for us, one we see through our car windows as we speed along on highways.

Has anyone read his novel Maurice? I’m kind of curious about that one.

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