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.