Ways of reading

Bud Parr at Chekhov’s Mistress has an interesting post that’s partly in response to my post from a couple days ago about reading difficult books. He argues that reading difficult books has taught him that “it’s okay NOT to understand.” Here’s what he says:

I’m not arguing for aesthetics, I’m arguing for intuition and all the other ways into some level of meaning besides the logical. There are so many levels of experience to be had by a great book that getting at some meaning as perceived by critics or academics or ticking off known references in your head doesn’t have to be a part of your interpretation.

He points out that in my post I privileged reading for logical meaning over other ways of reading, and, as I understand it, his post is a celebration of those other ways — including listening to the language as it’s spoken out loud.

I find this interesting and I agree with Bud’s point that there are multiple ways of reading and getting meaning from the reading. I must admit, as I wrote my post on difficult books I dashed off the line Bud picks up on, the line where I said, about Tender Buttons, “you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning,” which implies that logical meaning is more important than the language itself. But in that dashing off, I reveal my bias. I do read first for logical meaning. I do this automatically, without thinking about it. I don’t necessarily privilege critical, academic kinds of reading, which is something Bud talks about as well, the kind of reading where you make sure to get all the allusions and references and where you formulate thesis statements in your head as you read along. But on a first reading of a difficult book, I struggle to put the ideas together, to make sense of things.

Does everyone read this way? I can’t help but want to make logical sense of the words. But I value books like Tender Buttons for pushing me to read in other ways. I’ve read it a few times, and by the second and third time I knew enough about it to know it wasn’t going to make logical sense, and I started to read it for the beauty of the language, for the sounds and rhythms of the words, for the glimpses into meaning it offered and then evaded.

I remember the experience fondly, and I think it taught me to pay more attention to language and to loosen up a bit about wanting meaning. I suspect my reading of Nightwood, where the logical meaning is evading me at times, is more pleasurable because of my experience with Tender Buttons. I’m very happy to have learned this lesson; while there’s something satisfying about feeling that I’ve understood a text thoroughly, there’s also something satisfying about getting lost in language for a while, about dropping my usual expectations and seeing where it is an author will take me.

I also try to be aware that even while reading for logical sense, other ways of reading are happening at the same time — I’m using my intuition and emotions and my ear for language to create meaning. One of the pleasures of reading is that it can be a whole body experience, not purely a mental one.


Filed under Reading

11 responses to “Ways of reading

  1. I like what Bud has to say, and I should try and loosen up and read that way sometimes too. I think I look for concrete meaning in books, and if I can’t find it, I feel a failure (maybe that’s too strong a word, disappointed though)–much like the Hardwick book we just read for the Slaves. I think people did appreciate the language and maybe that was her point in writing it–but I found it so hard going that I couldn’t enjoy what I was reading. That said I also don’t think I read “deeply” enough sometimes and don’t get all those allusions, which can also be a disappointment. Of course I nearly always get some pleasure out of and usually I greatly enjoy most things I read, so I must be doing something right? 🙂


  2. The logical sense is the first thing I look for when reading, after all you generally read fiction to be told a story, but you’re right – while doing that there are other ways of experiencing the words going on inside you, that can be even more rewarding. When reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness it was initially hard going until I relaxed into the rhythm of the language and the images it conveyed. I experienced that book much more intensely as a result.


  3. Ted

    I too tend to first read for meaning but some books don’t yield their goods readily. Others just wash over you. With poetry I read a poem at least twice, once for sense and once for rhythm, meter, sound. Sometimes I just get through a book from one angle, because if it’s good enough, it will bear re-reading at some point. Jonah Lehrer has an excellent chapter on Gertrude Stein in his new book “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” you might enjoy checking it out. It gave me an appreciation for what she was trying to do with her more experimental works and makes me want to go back and look at some of them again.


  4. In answer to your question as to whether or not everyone reads the same way, I would have to say that years of teaching undergraduate Literature courses has taught me that the answer to that is ‘no’ and one of the first things that I encourage students to do is to discover what ‘sort’ of reader they are so that they can better appreciate how else they might respond to a text.
    For myself, I know that in general I read to understand and yet it will not be a piece of flawless plotting or logical argument that will stop me in my tracks and have me reading out loud, but a passage where the ‘music’ behind the written is perfect and simply demands to be heard.


  5. Danielle — if you get pleasure out of the reading, then that counts for a whole lot, I think. And I also think the more we read the more capable we are of finding pleasure in books, even difficult ones. It’s hard, though, not to feel like a failure if the logical meaning doesn’t come — it’s not easy to get past that feeling.

    Eloise — interesting example of Conrad. I can see how that book could be frustrating until you find the right way to approach it. Books like that teach you how to read them, don’t they? Conrad forces you to relax and be patient.

    Ted — thanks for the info about the Proust book — it sounds fascinating! And I’d thought about poetry a bit when I was writing my post; poetry can teach you to read in new ways — to pay attention to other things besides logical meaning. It’s one of the reasons to read poetry, I think.

    Ann — interesting idea to get students to think about what kind of a reader they are. Are they able to define it for themselves pretty well?


  6. Initially, no. The way Secondary education has gone lately in the UK means that very often they have stopped thinking about what ‘they’ think and why in favour of offering the responses their teachers tell them will get the high marks. By the end of the first term though they’re getting there and once they understand that their views are valid and start to express them it very soon becomes apparent that they aren’t all responding to the same things in the same way and the concept becomes clearer.


  7. When I read “The Night Before Christmas” to one adult class a few years back, some students had trouble following all the meaning, but they enjoyed hearing me read. Enjoying the sound of the reading is a quality, I normally associate more closely to hearing a foreign (exotic) language, but certainly I enjoyed having books read to me as a youth.

    Sometimes I even read aloud to myself; however, I also am in the camp of putting logical meaning high on the list. (Must be all my engineering background.)


  8. I’m caught out! In your orginial post when you said “you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning” about Tender Buttons I nodded my head and knew what you meant immediately. As much as I love Stein, it takes an effort for me to read her because there often is no sense, or rather the sense is in the sound. I think as humans we are programmed to expect words to have meaning and make sense and when they don’t, we are thrown back and made to readjust our brains. It is a delightful thing to do, to divorce meaning from words, Lewis Carroll was brilliant at it too. I love hearing poetry read aloud for the pure sound of it. Even if I didn’t get all the words, the sound gives it a meaning that goes beyond the words and touches something that my logical brain could never reach.


  9. Bikkuri — again, an interesting example. There IS a pleasure to be had in hearing someone read out loud, one that doesn’t have to do with logical meaning.

    Stefanie — that idea you mention, about humans being programmed to read for the sense, is what I was curious about. It seemed true to me, but then I thought, well, maybe not everybody reads the same way … I like it that certain books can teach us to read in new ways.


  10. I’m glad you posted this. I certainly felt skittish inferring from your words and using that as a platform for my idea. Part of my idea on this is that the intuitive reading is but one way in, but generally necessarily with more than one reading of the text (just wanted to make that clear). That works nicely with poetry but not necessarily with longer prose works – I guess my hope would be that readers would feel less inhibited if they were released of having to ‘get’ a work of art – there’s so much of that in our cliff-notes society. Anyway, I’ll stop myself before I keep rambling.


  11. verbivore

    Great discussion. As a translator I very often have to read something five or ten times before I can reform it into English. This has changed how I read everything…now I constantly second guess my first reading and wait for a second before I feel really comfortable commenting on my reading experience.

    Yesterday I read the opening lecture from Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and he really gets into the idea of rereading as fundamental to understanding a text. He considers that the first time we read something it is only a physical experience, our eyes moving over each and every word. It is only on the second or third time that the physical gives way to a more intangible experience. I love this idea.


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