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.