On Stumbling While Reading

Sometimes your reading runs aground. You read and read, moving on smoothly, even if not effortlessly, taking in the written word, perhaps admiring the art and craft on display, perhaps envying a competence and creativity beyond your own, and then, abruptly,  jarringly, there is no more purchase, no swell to lift the boat. You stare at the page; it stares back at you. You re-read to no avail. You have lost contact with the author; that outstretched hand, which was guiding you across the shoals of a difficult theoretical movement, is now gone, suddenly frustratingly elusive. The trail, the track, is lost; you back up and try again. Again, to no avail. You find familiar territory somewhere in the rear, and you retreat to its safety, reassuring yourself that you have not lost the competency you once thought you had. You venture forth again and stumble back, chastened and defeated. This might be where the trail runs out, where you come to a halt.

Reading is a funny business; in this age of perennial distraction even more so. But even without distraction there is still something magical about how it proceeds, how our reading ‘voice’ becomes internalized, about how the reader finds purchase in the text and ventures forth into the unknown, carrying on a dialog with the author. This is a process that sometimes goes wrong even when it is going well. The comprehensible text, the flowing text, can become the incomprehensible, the statically frozen, the impenetrable. This occurs, at least in part, because the challenges of writing are not fully solved by the writer and thus become the reader’s.  The ‘finished version’ is merely the ‘last draft’; it is not uniformly accessible to the reader; it contains within it bad neighborhoods all of its own. Here might be where a particularly tangled web of the text’s narrative became a little too dense, a little too resistant to the author’s attempts to clear it away; here might be where a complicated argument got out of control and resisted taming. All the rewrites have not helped; the towel has been thrown in.

These zones of confusion can be large or small; they may offer temporary swamps or permanent barriers to progress. They may only interrupt, or they may derail. Sometimes the only option is to leapfrog them; to move on, and beyond, with nary a glance backwards. This can be occasion for bruised pride, for a bewailing and gnashing of teeth. But that is to protest too much; we should not expect every step of a journey to be an easy or painless one. To be sure, we run the risk of having missed out on the most crucial passages of all, those stones without which the foundation of the text before us will crumble. But perhaps that is a risk that is unavoidable, a discomfort that must be made bearable, if we are to ever to carry on, to discover what lies ahead and beyond. Besides other sectors of incomprehension.

My Favorite Reader

For as long as I have been married, my wife has been my favorite reader. She reads and offers comments on almost everything I write, from the brief posts here (and at The Cordon) to my books.  She reads my angry emails, my applications for various academic offerings–nothing is too long or too short or trivial to not be read by her. She patiently puts up with a never-ending stream of requests from me: “Can you read this today? Can you read this by tomorrow? Can you tell me whether this makes any sense? Do you think I’m clear enough here? Is this just trivial bullshit? Are you sure this isn’t complete crap?” And on and on. Once I’m reassured by her that everything is a ‘go’, I can press ‘send’ or ‘publish.’ (Early on, in my academic writing, I established a simple standard: it had to be comprehensible to my wife, an educated non-academic. That glove has to fit, or it’s a no-go.)

Writers are a sensitive lot, of course, and so I don’t take too kindly to some of the criticism sent my way–even from folks whom I’ve asked for critique. There are times when my wife and I sit down to discuss her comments on a draft of mine, and our conversation becomes edgy and just a little contentious. My writing is limpid and clear; how could it possibly be ambiguous or confusing? Surely, this aside that I’ve just made here is not an irrelevant distraction but a valuable and useful supplement to the central thread of discussion? Of course, this sentence stands on its own, and my elaboration here, to you, will not be needed by the reader. There are times, indeed, when my wife will terminate a debriefing session with a brief and exasperated, “Look, those are my comments as a reader; do what you want with them.”

And I do. Even if I’m defensive and stubborn at times, too much in love with my transient creations.

The hardest suggestions to take on board are inevitably, deletions. Last week, I argued–with some vigor–in favor of retaining a particular tiny sliver of my writing: a sentence that ended a paragraph by hearkening back to a previous chapter. I thought the backwards reference worked and strenuously resisted the suggestion that it be deleted. I finally walked away, irate,  in a huff, saying “That sentence stays.” The next morning, on waking up, before I even made my morning coffee, I walked over to my desk, opened up the manuscript file, turned to the right page, and deleted the offending sentence. My wife had been right; it had to go. And what a relief it was to see it disappear off the page.

I’ve written many co-authored works and I’m grateful to all my collaborators on those projects for their expenditures of creative and intellectual energy in making my writing better. I can see their impress in every word that has finally made it to the printed page. But along with them, my favorite reader is also present.

The author includes the reader too.

What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (and Literature)

In ‘What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art‘ (New York Times, April 12, 2013), Eric R. Kandel writes:

Alois Riegl….understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture….In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

Kande’s focus in his article is on visual art, but these considerations apply equally to the printed word. Here are the passages excerpted above with very slight emendation:

Literature is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the reader  collaborate with the author in transforming two-dimensional printed words on a page into an imaginative depiction of the world, the reader interprets what he or she sees on the page canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the text….In addition to our acquired reading abilities, each of us brings to a work of literature our acquired memories: we remember other works of literature that we have seen. We remember scenes and people who have meaning to us and relate the work of literature to those memories. In order to read what is printed on a page on a page, we have to know beforehand what we might read in the text.

So, we get the collaborative theory of the reader: a literary work is brought to life by the reader, it acquires meaning in the act of reading.  This ensures that the work serves as raw material for an act of active engagement with the reader, who brings a history of reading, a corpus of memories, and thus, an inclination and disposition toward the text. The more you read, the more you bring to every subsequent act of reading; the more you engage with humans, the more varied the archetypes and templates of the human experience you have playing in your mind as you read.

The classic work then, which endures over time and acquires a new set of readers in each successive generation, becomes so because it remains reinterpretable on an ongoing basis; newer bodies of text and human histories surround it and it acquires new meanings from them.  We are still unable to analyze this phenomenon, to determine what makes a particular text receptive to such reimaginings over time; its success is the only indicator it has what it takes to acquire the status of a classic.

Writer and Reader, Bound Together

Tim Parks, in the New York Review of Books blog, writes on the always interesting, sometimes vexed relationship between writers and their readers, one made especially interesting by the blogger and his mostly anonymous readers and commentators:

As with the editing process…there is the question of an understanding between writer and reader about what kind of reading experience is being offered. Readers like to suppose that their favorite writers—journalists, novelists, or poets—are absolutely independent, free from all interference, but the truth is that if an author indulges his own private idiolect or goes on for too long, he can at best expect to divide readers into those who admire him slavishly, whatever he throws at them, and those who set him aside in desperation. At worst he will be left with no readers at all. Is there a relationship between a writer’s respect for these conventions and the content or tone of what he writes, the kind of opinions we can expect him to have?

The blogosphere, with its wonderful but dangerous flexibility, can ruthlessly betray an author’s attitude toward his readers. Does he respect their precious time and keep things tight? Is he sensitive to their expectations? Is he willing to read the comments on his post and perhaps even respond to them? Dickens, one suspects, might have spent many hours online discussing the fate of Pip Pirrip or Little Nell. As for me, I’m glad to listen to editors and produce an article, and eager to have it widely read. But I’m relieved not to be contractually obliged to engage with readers afterward.

My interaction with ‘my readers’ here has been a mixed one. I still get very few comments on my posts, but some who comment do so quite frequently. Sadly, I am guilty of often not responding to comments. There is a large backlog of them on this site right now, and I keep telling myself that I will sit down and take care of them. But parenting is taking up a lot of time, as are my reduced work duties, and of course, so does the rest of my life (and blogging itself). Ironically, sometimes, it is the really thoughtful comment that gets lost because I hesitate to reply too quickly and say something silly. More often than not, this results in that comment remaining unanswered (and on at least two occasions has led to readers accusing me of not wanting to address their critical commentary).  I hope I have not lost too many readers this way. I have also, as noted before, lost a couple of readers, frequent visitors to the comments space, who had grown offended by my political stance. (This will probably happen again.) Those were visible, but obviously, some show up here once, and then leave because they do not find my writings congenial to their politics. (This must have happened during the period when I wrote several posts on the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College.)

While I do not think I will be able to address the issue of offending people by what I write here, I remain committed to answering comments as often, and as thoughtfully, as I can. I hope you’ll stick around and take my word for it.