March 2, 2006

Reading well and not

Please let me be quick about this simple thought.

I recently listened to Treasure Island as read by the volunteers at LibriVox – which now I will review: Treasure Island, I thought, was absolutely delightful and completely deserving of its reputation, especially the first half, which struck me as essentially perfect in conception and execution. Once the plot reaches the island itself, things begin to take on a compromised character that was downright disappointing to me when I was younger. (What?? There’s no scene where they dig up the treasure??) Even now, though I can see the value in having the narrator and the course of events take on a more mature tone, the escapist delight of the whole thing seems to me to falter somewhat during the adult-narrated battle scene and never quite recover afterward. But it was still a real pleasure throughout.

Secondly, to review LibriVox: free audiobooks is a lovely idea, and making them free because they are all-volunteer is also a lovely idea, and I’m all for it, but the issue of quality-control is obviously the next question, and the people at LibriVox seem to feel that the purity and generosity of their goal demands that they ignore it. In fact, by encouraging bulletin-board coordinated group efforts over “solo projects” (Treasure Island’s chapters were variously read to me by 13 different volunteers), they have found a way to ensure, by the principle of weakest-linkage, that everything will eventually suck at least a little. By emphasizing their readers’ experiences over their listeners’, they miss the point enough to seriously limit the value of their service to all but the most desperate patrons. But once they expand, as I’m sure they will, they’ll probably have the sense to implement some kind of rating or feedback system.

The point, which will bring me to my point, is that some of the chapters were read well enough, and some were read very badly, and these latter forced me to have “read” those chapters correspondingly badly myself, and this was a bit of a flashback, for me, to the way I read when I was younger. One LibriVox reader would deliver sentences with intonation so garbled that it was absolutely obvious that he hadn’t bothered to understand what he was saying. But just as obviously, he understood some of what was going on. The action took on a kind of hazy vagueness, where only about 30% of the words were actualized enough to actually exert a tug on these rubbery marionettes of characters and make them move. It was how I used to read everything, and I got to experience it again and remember what that was like. For me as a kid, the text was always sort of pathetic and quaint, like radio coverage of sports – the action, lying somewhere beyond the words, was fundamentally invisible to me, but the words were going to try their best, with their feeble technology, to deliver whatever they could carry from that source without spilling. As such, it was no surprise that most of them would fail. I was sifting through, looking for the few that managed to bring anything through that hadn’t been contaminated by incomprehensibility on the way, that certain incomprehensibility that was just the inevitable byproduct of expressing something in words, like the “kkkkhhhchhh-opy that? hchchhckk” that comes with the territory when you’re using walkie-talkies. My ability to sift the text was my strongest suit, as a reader, well-honed because it seemed to me to be the operative ability in all reading, like someone with bad reception who prides himself on being able to ignore the static. It never really occurred to me that the antenna might be adjustable; or rather, it was so obviously adjustable when need be that it never occurred to me that I should undertake to adjust it all the time. We’re going to be tested on this chapter? Well, the only way to be prepared for the artificial hair-splitting of a quiz is to undergo the artificial hair-splitting of reading every word – if the teacher is going to be so vindictive as not to differentiate between static and signal, then I’ll have to follow suit. But everything that happened at school was perverse; it was all about traps and tricks. It was no wonder they found a way to abuse books by testing us on static.

Nowadays I read better, and more importantly I know what it is to read better, or more poetically put, what it is to read. My thought that I wanted to record here is that it’s really astonishing to me that the thoughts of smart people, put in books, are mine for the having if only I am conscientious enough about reading them. Written sentences are little coded instructions for how to construct thoughts, and if one actually follows the instructions one has those thoughts. In reading well I can sometimes feel the components of each thought rotating and assembling themselves and clicking into formation. So why is it that people can read hundreds of books and not be the combined intellects of all their authors? I guess there’s an obvious answer about the authors being defined by the capacity to write those books, which is not itself encapsulated or described in the books, but yeah, that’s not interesting. My answer, that inspired me just now, was that I have learned that reading must be done much much slower than I knew, as a kid, and that even now I find that to really own a thought, I must read yet slower, sometimes quite oppressively slowly. To build a thought so that it remains and lives in my head when the sentence that encodes it has gone away is time-consuming, serious work. For me it is much slower work than reading is ever meant to be. But I believe that it is always available to me to do if I so choose, and this is not something that I knew as a child. I guess I never learned how to “study,” is what I’m saying. But, no, I’m saying something beyond that – that the task of assimilating a text is the task of assimilating oneself to the text, and that this is very difficult, but only because of its demands on time.

The image that I had was that each point in a logical argument (or a literary argument) is like a step that leads to the next, and that reading and thinking sentences is like constructing these steps in one’s mind so as to stand on them and begin constructing the next one.* As a kid, I would try to skip all this business with steps and go straight for the meaning, like when you get the card with the picture of the Neapolitan ice cream in Candy Land and get to go straight to the swamp – and even in my reading now, I am often building each step only sturdy enough to support me in building the next one, not caring if it all crumbles once I move on. But this is just another form of impatience. If I wanted, I could work at each step until it was a fixed feature of my mind, and it would be there for me when I climbed back down at the end of the book. Any text allows the opportunity to reshape the interior self on its blueprint, if you’re willing to spend years at it. But what text could justify that kind of devotion? The more useful point is that any given sentence allows it too, and I know there are plenty of sentences I’d like to build into the architecture my mind.

I guess a lot of people are out there right now doing this with the Bible, which is such a shame since that’s one of the few books where the steps don’t lead to one another and don’t build anything in particular. Ruins upon ruins; like trying to model the mind on the mess of an archeological site.

Okay fine, so the ice cream wasn’t in the swamp.

* Like the “builders” in Lemmings.


  1. Interesting post. I too have hazy memories of how different an experience it was to read in childhood. There’s only a single text that allows me to really access that feeling, my Fran├žois le Champi perhaps — the first page of James M. McPherson’s Civil War history, Battle Cry of Freedom. I must have been nine or ten when I read Battle Cry — well, the first 600 pages of it, anyway (I was a terrible book-quitter as a kid) — because that’s when I was a fanatic Civil War buff. I still have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor of my dad’s den, resolving to understand every word, and almost giving up after having to go to the dictionary more than a dozen times on the first page alone.

    Here’s an excerpt from that first page, describing the entry of U.S. forces into Mexico City in 1847:

    “Were these tattered gringoes the men who had vanquished the splendid hosts of Santa Anna? Martial music suddenly blared from a street entering the plaza. Jaunty dragoons with drawn sabers cantered into the square escorting a magnificent bay charger ridden by a tall general resplendent in full-dress uniform with gold epaulets and white-plumed chapeau. The Mexicans broke into involuntary applause.”

    Reading this now, I can remember my discouragement clearly, and my current self thinks: Wow, this is pointlessly overwritten. On the other hand, I’m quite certain that this must have been where I learned the meaning of words like “chapeau” and “dragoons” and “epaulets” and “hosts.” Indeed, I know for a fact, because it’s the single word that shines out in my memory these seventeen years later, that this is how I learned the word “gringoes.” So, good for my nine-year-old self, and good for you with Moby-Dick.

    Posted by Adam on |
  2. That passage, quite awful now, would have been classed almost entirely as static by my nine-year-old self. I think I would have read it this way: “Were these — ? — music — street — . — [military stuff] — tall general — . Mexicans broke into — applause.” And I would have done that in about one second. But you can see how that sort of reading would still get me through a book basically understanding the action, but as through shower glass.

    Obviously, your interest in military history as a kid and your (related?) attraction to the idea of looking everything up puts you in another category entirely. You had already come to the idea that the ritualized process of reading (or of learning a set of facts) could be appealing in itself. I just wanted a) adults to be proud of me or impressed with me for being a self-motivated reader, and b) to enjoy cool stuff, to whatever degree there was cool stuff in a book. Naturally, not every word was necessary for those goals. Nobody who was paying any attention to the world as it really was could possibly expect me to actually care about the damn “dragoons” and “gringoes.” A bunch of old book stuff! I would have highly doubted that my parents or anyone else actually knew those words. Who ever read books like this anyway? My teachers only even knew about books because the school made them do it. I was alone in uncharted territory, reading these things, and was free to slaughter the natives if that’s what seemed convenient.

    But hm – you clearly had your own plan to impress people, so it’s not like we were coming from completely different mindsets. Maybe the difference is that you were capable of being impressed with yourself, whereas I was only capable of wanting other people to be impressed with me, so I only took the most efficient route. No, that doesn’t really work out. I memorized my fair share of dinosaur-related data. I think the idea of becoming more impressive by looking up words I didn’t know just never occurred to me.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. This is all very fascinating.

    Specific thoughts: a lot of children’s literature (or just children’s books, I should say, since it’s not all literature) are plot-driven, so children are encouraged, in a way, to skip over the “boring parts” and jump to the action. Who cares what Nancy Drew is wearing or what the weather is–just tell me what the hell IS in the old clock. But I think, as children, you–and Adam–were always reading, as the school librarians say, “above your grade level.” And as much as it rubbed me the wrong way at the time, maybe there is some validity in discouraging children from doing that. Because “good readers” like you and Adam could decode way above your grade level, but were not comprehending at the same level and, in your eagerness and ambition where books were concerned, allowing 70%–your estimation–to drift over your head. Yank that number up to 99% and you have my adorable early reading experience of reading all the instance of “and,” “the,” “on,” “in,” etc. in “Pal Joey” (of all things) and apparently some Checkov, too (in translation, though). If I had really been trying to “get something out of” that reading, it would have been really discouraging, and might have somehow instilled in me a kind of frustration or hopelessness when it came to reading. Had Adam read that same “Battle Cry” passage at 12 or 15, those vocab words wouldn’t have been an issue. I know you’re not JUST talking about lack of vocabulary as the reason for “bad reading,” but I think it IS the biggest early deterrent to “good reading.”

    Question: In order to absorb or appreciate the product of someone’s intellect expressed in words, you say you have to read much, much more slowly than reading is meant to be. So, slower than conversational speed, I assume you mean? But if that person were telling you his intellectual thoughts across a dinner table, would you have to ask him to speak very very slowly?

    Or have I missed the point entirely?

    Posted by mrb on |
  4. Well, my understanding is that Adam could and did comprehend what he was reading above his grade level, at least well enough to do a coherent imitation of it in his own writing at the time. Whether he was able to relate his reading to his life is another issue.

    Whereas I am saying that I was not really able to decode what I was reading; or rather, that I might have been able to had I known what to do, but I mistook the goal and thought my task was to pan out the content rather than contend with the language.

    It’s possible that I would have benefitted from being forced to stay at my own grade level, but at least in pointless retrospect, I want to believe that if I had somehow been made to see the clean-plate-club “fun” in actually reading every word, I would have been capable of using that to get to, at least, where Adam was. I think kids might need PSA posters in the school library that say “Read every word!” That would certainly have convinced me, no joke.

    I take it you were a fair bit younger when you read all the three-letter words in Pal Joey. That’s more like a sophisticated version of a baby turning the pages in a book – you were just playacting at reading, whereas I was, by the estimation of everyone around me, actually reading. Though you probably got the praise you wanted for doing that, so neither of us had any reason to be discouraged. I was never discouraged! I was just never motivated to raise my standards.

    As for my original thought about slow processing, I’m not talking about the speed at which I read the words themselves – if you were seriously asking about whether I’d ask someone to speak slower: no – I’m talking about the long process of cud-chewing that passes, after hearing the words of a sentence but before being so changed as to be able to come up with that sentence oneself. I guess I’m putting “understanding” on a spectrum and implying that the deepest kind of understanding is being able to potentially “create” a thought from within and think of it as one’s own, and that it is possible to move thoughts from the outside, in the form of words, all the way in there, into the form of self, but it takes a long, long time.

    At the other end of the spectrum is reading like Cookie Monster eats.

    If you’re asking “how slow,” I don’t know. Hard to measure these things. I thought this last night because I took Middlemarch (which I’ve never read) into the bathroom to read a few sentences and see whether it might happen to hook me. I read, in the opening paragraph of the Prelude, about St. Theresa as a child:

    “Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.”

    By one standard, I was cheerfully ready to move on (despite not having known anything previously about the life of St. Theresa, or what “epos” means) – but I thought, “whatever thoughts George Eliot had that made her great, I am not having them, despite their being spelled out right in front of me. I am reading this and asking myself: Do I get it? Sure! so that I may have permission to bound onward.”

    I was focused on the phrase “some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.” I “get it,” but only as it is being spoken, or only in a reduced sense that satisfies the context but nothing else. The writer, however, had a different, stronger relationship with it. What is this thought, and is it something I would or could ever think myself? And if it is not for me, what thoughts do I have to stand in its place? I don’t yet have moveable bricks in my brain labeled “self-despair” and “rapturous consciousness of life beyond self” that I can set in parallel with one another and really see this thought stand on its own. I can make flimsy mockups and get a sense – probably a fairly accurate sense – but it will crumble soon enough. And in reading I don’t actually even do that – I just estimate the probable shape and size of those concepts and the probable way they would fit together and the probable shape of that resulting thought, and then I move on and the whole image dissolves.

    Whereas – I’m just restating everything, here, but now that I’ve given the concrete example maybe it makes more sense – whereas I always have the choice of actually raising myself, at least within the scope of this one sentence, to the level of (say) George Eliot, by actually building these blocks so that they are a part of my inner architecture. But that is simply a slower process because now each of those component bricks must be investigated for solidity. “Self-despair,” huh? Well, that means attaching “despair” to “self-,” and when it comes down to it there are seven or eight different combinations of surfaces at which they could attach. It most certainly matters which way I do it! Doing it right takes time and investigation. Time slows down yet further. Just for one sentence! This is what I’m saying.

    I guess architecturally I’m working within a Three Little Pigs analogy here.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  5. No, my point was a little different than that: I think I got 100% of the meaning, it just took me 20 minutes to read a single page. However, the reading got much easier as I went on, though I don’t know whether that’s because the prose got less purple or because I got better at it.

    I don’t think you magically learn how to read a passage like that just because you get older. There had to be a discrete, identifiable moment in my life where I learned the meaning of chapeau, and it was probably going to entail looking it up, at 9 or 12 or 26. (I suppose it could have been an exchange like, “Phyllis, I just love your new chapeau!” “What, this old hat?” But that seems unlikely.) So I’m glad it happened back when I had the zeal to actually do that, as opposed to now when I am lazier.

    Posted by Adam on |
  6. Yikes! This is like some Twilight Zone episode where a hapless reader is condemned to have to TAKE ON THE INNER LIFE of every author in the library, and in the final scene, there are stacks and stacks of huge volumes reaching to the ceiling, and the poor shmo, we realize to our horror, will never be able to do anything else–never live his own life or have his own thoughts. I can’t recognize what you’re describing as the ultimate form of reading. Why re-invent the wheel? If George Eliot already conceived of Middlemarch and expressed it, why do you have to go through the same process? She saved you the trouble! There’s a “how many monkeys would it take…?” analogy here, too, but I can’t get it quite right.
    Was your choice of Middlemarch as the example is amusing to me. You know it was my great reading albatross for years and years?

    Posted by mrb on |
  7. To cut and paste from the entry above: “Any text allows the opportunity to reshape the interior self on its blueprint, if you’re willing to spend years at it. But what text could justify that kind of devotion? The more useful point is that any given sentence allows it too, and I know there are plenty of sentences I’d like to build into the architecture my mind.”

    I’m talking about reading as a means of self-improvement, and saying that it potentially is one. If one cares to try to be a better thinker, a good book really, to the molecule, spells out a script for doing so. That’s not necessarily what one should do with a book. But neither is it necessarily an abuse of books. If the Twilight Zone image is meant to evoke futility in the face of a mortal life, well, that’s a problem with a lot of things. If the point is that one misses out on one’s own life, a) that’s equally true (and it is certainly true) of any time at all spent reading; the question is simply of managing the resource of time, and b) I’m sort of saying that after a point, to have thought the thoughts of an author, if one has really thought them (which is hard!) is indistinguishable from having thought them oneself. So who’s to say what’s missing out on what?

    Sounds to me like you (and Adam, in recent private communication) are getting defensive because you think I am declaring “real” reading to be some kind of Talmudic thing. Not at all. I’m just saying that there are greater benefits to the self to be reaped as one goes in that direction – yes, in proportion to time spent – and, I suppose, that it’s better to willingly choose not to completely own what one is reading than to, like nine-year-old me, not acknowledge that there is a difference. I have, at this point in my life, realized that the cost-benefit budget that suits me is at a much higher time-expenditure than the budget I had as a kid. I guess here I’m considering the ways in which an even higher time-expenditure might still be worthwhile, at least on occasion. And I don’t think that some kind of Twilight Zone fatality is a real (or necessary) rebuttal to that.

    Yes, I remember that you felt beaten by not having finished Middlemarch, and then that you finished it. You had some standard of reading that you had to live up to before you’d allow yourself to consider it actually read. Otherwise you’d just have read it the way I read Moby-Dick. Of course now I’m declaring myself not to have yet read Moby-Dick because I’ve shifted the standard and have no regrets about it. The question here is what kind of relationship one has with that standard. I think it’s better to knowingly set it than to have it simply dictated by one’s own impatience. My impatience doesn’t know what’s good for me at all; it errs quite egregiously on both sides of the line.

    On which note, stay tuned in the next couple of days for the gargantuan second entry in my Moby-Dick sweepstakes. Ugh.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  8. I would just like to point out that I mentioned this LibriVox site to you in an email, to which you have not responded. But I feel honored to have brought to your attention the subject for one of your entries.

    your sis

    Posted by Emma on |
  9. Who you callin’ defensive? Shut up, man, shut up shut up shut up!!

    Posted by Adam on |
  10. Em, believe it or not, I had already listened to Treasure Island in its entirety by the time I got your email, which was therefore an odd coincidence. I had just stumbled on LibriVox for myself a few days earlier, in the course of looking things up for Moby-Dick, and then listened to Treasure Island while I cleaned my kitchen, which is now very clean. I will mention all this in my response when I respond to your email to which I have not yet responded.

    Posted by broomlet on |

Comments are closed.