On reading the tea leaves

Thursday, July 14th, 2005

Susan Gibb asks for some elaboration on a comment I made on a response to Joe Faust’s post on the treatment of some of his work and the pitfalls of reading and writing. Reading is a fun subject and worth poking at since a lot of the content of this weblog touches on ideas and a lot of my training comes from historians of them. Anyway, the subject is reading and the start comes with some play on the term and my own experience with it.

Once upon a time I was trekking through the West Texas desert, which I did a lot as a kid. When you do this you’re followed by dark visions, such as rattlesnakes, wasp stings, broken bones, scorpion traps, enemy attacks, slipping down shale walls into thickets of Spanish Dagger, running out of water, and wandering in circles and dying meters from a 7-11 (which was, of course, just over the rise). But seriously, even the trivialist of walks required the reading of the terrain (plenty of people have limped home because they turned their ankle on a loose stone). In this first case, I was trying to find the short path around a ravine. Did I find the shortest path? There may have been a shorter one that I failed to identify. Nonetheless, I got by and continued, watching for snakes and scanning the sky to keep time. In this case, finding the way through is a form of reading, of making one’s way, of detecting the way, and in serious cases, this kind of reading is an important skill to develop. This is a common form of “reading” people use everyday to find a destination that is unfamiliar or to find their way to a familair place through a detour in a rain storm. As I drive to work, I don’t read the terrain, since I already know where I’m going and often don’t even remember having covered certain stretches of road. All of the sudden I’m there without incident.

Conclusion then: Reading can be classified as an act of making one’s way, of finding a path, of locating, of discriminating, of avoiding. Thus the infinitive breakdown: to read is to avoid, to descriminate, to find, to locate, and to make in the case of travel through various kinds of spaces. Can such a breakdown be applied to other kinds of spaces and travel? In the above case, the starting point was a journey through the desert. But how about a journey through a game, a book, a poem, a job interview, a blueprint, or life in general? These “other” spaces are indeed phenomenologically different. In the starter case, reading the terrain involves the use of the eyes, perhaps the nose, and the reading of distance, texture, slope, direction, time, shadow, shape, and other thinks that I can’t think of at the moment but perhaps are mechanical anyway. In other words, I don’t have to will myself to see basic color, which is an excellent thing.

But all of this is basic. In the terrain of New England, which can be quite complicated, there is very little confusion about the physical qualities of things. I know that I should avoid the wild raspberry because I’ll get scraped in it. I should also avoid walking too close to the peonies because ants love the buds. Scrapes are proof of my body impacting “real” objects; a scrape proves that I’m another object. Nor is there any moral confusion here. A scrape by itself is unambiguously inimical. It cuts open the body, which is bad. Far from being just a thing though, the scrape is also information: it tells me something. I’ll usually pay attention it. It must be read or I’ll soon be a disaster of open wounds, leaking to death just meters from the 7-11.

One response to “On reading the tea leaves”

  1. susan says:

    Can you do all three (or more) at first reading? Can you walk, drive, and fly simultaneously? Does the teaching of a work help, or in the re-reading to catch what is missed, or the discussion with others still continue to bring you new insight on a particular piece?

    Often on a physical journey, we see things that are caught and stored but not dwelled upon until they float up in flashes of memory. Is that sometimes what happens in reading? I’m not used to, nor quick nor skilled enough to “catch” a theme as I read, but will need the time to think about it. Is it possible to learn to recognize these things as one is reading the first time around, as well as keep track of the story and still be awed by the writing? Or maybe the skill in the writing is not something we should be aware of as readers. Maybe only a wannabe writer is looking for these signs along the path. I’ll stop now; I’m starting to ramble.