Category Archives: Reading: a series

Thoughts on the act of reading

Topology and Abstraction

One of the most difficult elements of learning (and teaching) is abstraction. The real down and dirty knowledge stuff is typically abstract material, whether it be related to numbers or relations. I’ve noticed this in children. Ask five year olds to think back to the year 1976 and typically they wont know what you’re after because they haven’t yet objectified the notion of time, not to mention the idea of relating time to someone else in symbolic terms where time T is related to an already abstracted set of notions such as pi times the square root of string length L divided by gravity as represented by G.

Abstraction then. A map is an abstracted view of a complex set of relations. I’ve noticed that S (my son Sam) is much taken by the old Cole and Degan magic school bus books, where a bus takes children into a hurricane and other assorted tough messes for the sake of hands on learning. These are not easy books to read to children because of the numerous topological elements in the texts. There’s typically a brief narrative element that forms the core adventure story as well as a collection of lists, dialogue bubbles, illustrative graphics, and other sundries.

But what has helped my son to read magic school-bus like books–books with complex layouts and cognitive demands–is his experience fiddling with digital games whose topological elements demand some amount of abstract thinking and spatial analysis. For example, Kya, Dark Lineage provides the player with multiple way of figuring the space of the game: a 3-D environment, a one-dimensional map, and a two-dimensional representation of Kya’s world. In other words, to figure out where you are in the game, you can access the map. Reading the digital space serves to reinforce all kinds of neat skills in children.

Joe Writer and the Publishing Game

Josh Radke and I have been going on about issues in publishing and the markets, a topic we will be talking about at our upcoming Narrative’s meeting. The conversation has looked like this:

I agree that assigning blame doesn’t help anyone involved. I thought the problem was the Agents. Having read that thread (, it’s clear to me that the problem is largely Ingram and their almost monopoly.

..I don’t know if I can agree that people are reading more. At least in my generation (and those that are following), many of us are much more interested in the quick fix of a movie or game for their entertainment than in finding a good book. I can’t say I blame them. When that thread states that the majority of new fiction out there is saturated with politics and multiculturalism, they’re right–at least by perception. That comment I posted to your blog comes into play here on the grounds that readers under 30 are tainted by the the fiction we were force-fed in school. We think that it is a representation of what is on the bookshelves, and so many don’t even bother to try and find thee diamonds in the rough. If there were more Dan Browns and Harry Turtledoves allowed in school curriculums, schools might make some headway. And many others just simply don’t have the time in this labour-intensive, corporate society.

..More people are writing? You bet, and I suspect that this trend is probably tied to self-publishing and the internet. And the more people that write and think they can be published, the more we hear about rejection letters and scams and the impossibility of getting published. However, I don’t think the issue is Joe Writer getting rejected because there is no room at the inn. It’s that Joe Writer is getting rejected without being given a chance because he’s being compared to Dan Brown or James Lee Burke or Robert Jordan. And Joe Writer realizing after more rejections that he can’t be Joe Writer is he wants to be published and on a shelf at a major bookstore. Because apparently the only book-types that are worth promoting are the ones that are proven and politically correct. I’m sure you’ve noticed the amount of “trials of a young wizard” books that are popping up everywhere. This same trend is dominating a movie industry where there is no such this as an “original screenplay”.

Writers aren’t suposed to have the impression they have to pattern themselves after a successful authour or story. And literature isn’t something that is meant to be clones or grown in a winter greenhouse. By telling writers this is what they have to do, writing becomes a science and not an art.. and writing as a science is betrayal of the art of the worst kind.

As I see it at the moment, the solution is the continued success of small presses and their distributors. Small presses are still willing to take a gamble on new writers. Independent bookstores like to promote local authours, and consequentially, local authours find it easier to get a booksigning with an indy bookstore. Self-publishing also figures into this equation. And this kind of grassroots action is how all successful “revolutions” start.

My arguments about the state of publishing in the United States may be flawed, but I don’t really see a question of altruism or public service in publishing; nor do I see why Joe Writer would need to write derivatively in order to see himself in print. I see the main job of “publishing” concerns as that of “selling” books not “publishing” them. In the markets, print books are a commodity that must be sold not just published, since publishing doesn’t necessarily “imply” money changing hands but it does necessitate a “reader,” whereas “book stores” need to stay in business somehow. Somehow the question comes to a basic issue of fairness toward authors. But to do “houses” owe Joe Writer a hearing? My conclusion is “no.” Joe Writer,who’s a guy with an unpublished novel, needs to find some way to get his book to a reading public but if he wants to “sell” his novel he needs to play the market game. That’s my opinion.

But the original issue came from this focused question by Josh: “Are books and literary reading becoming obsolete?”

My answer is absolutely not. As far as I know, people are still interested in reading poetry, fiction, and all kinds of things from the diversity of presses out there. But another way of risking a question is to ask how reading habits are changing such that when we ask “Are people still reading” we negociate what we mean by “reading” in this sense.

A lot of what I’ve written here is off the top of my head and is in no way intended as factual or even valid as inference. But I think that a lot of this has to do with what we mean when we ask Joe Churchgoer if he’s religious and he says, “Sure am. In fact I have a devil worship meeting tonight. Would you like to join me?”

Reading the tea leaves, 9

I referred to the 24 hr classroom in this post, but I think this notion of “learning time” needs further explaining because I don’t want to imply that I want people to be “in school” for 24 hrs. Far from it. Thus the title of this post gets archived under the “on reading” series.

The explanation is relevant to “schooling” and time. In an older essay, I put out some ideas on computer conferencing as an aid in “extending” the classroom beyond its traditional scope, playing with the idea that the square classroom limits rather than enhances intellectual pursuit. I find it absurd that we expect students to learn what can be learned about a subject in 15 weeks, four to six hours per week, especially when the “ethic” of learning is really about the grade and the credit, which amounts to equating a grade with a commodity. Most of the students in my classes–not all, mind you, and not always to an absolute degree–really only want to get through the course with a B or better and then move on to the next credit, regardless of the subject. Students do the best they can to “get” the grade they want not to “learn” the material which is the best way perhaps of making the grade. In graduate school I never worried about a grade because I was so involved in showing my teachers that I knew what I was talking about.

In all of this, I blame no one, and maybe I’m being presumptuous. But I talk to too many teachers who lament “how” their students navigate higher education, and I lament it myself. Blame isn’t the point. Typically, we’re thrilled with the “personhood” of students–that is, as people they’re just as interesting, smart, and likeable as any I’ve known.

First, I read the environment and the history students bring with them. Did anyone like school as a child? Maybe the early grades, when recently everything is colors, playtime, and nice posters (note that I’ve followed my daughter’s education fairly closely and know pretty well what’s going on now in her high school. It was never this way for me, posters, play, and fun: I always hated school and would never want to be “young” again). For the yunguns, though, “school” will “happen.”

Attitudes aside, the very presence of “school” in one’s history is an incredible influence on basic human experience of the world. Not to beat this to death, but I remember driving home from a college course just after graduating high school and having this realization: “It’s 10 AM, September, and I’m driving home. What the hell am I supposed to be doing with myself?” (I had been trained that from 8 to 3 I should be in school, the prime destination of youth in our culture.)

More importantly, early school experience “shapes” how we think about a “learning space” in general, “learning space” defined as a “place” where one is supposed to learn, and any place “beyond” or “outside” that “room” or “hall” is preferrable, typically taking the shape of “summer” time when no “teacher” could force me to work on vocabulary. “Summertime” however always came with reminders that “school” was just around the corner.

In this context, what I’d like to see is “school” blurred away as a shaper of human experience with more of a trend toward intensified learning. Practically speaking, this can be incorporated into college because college is and has been still a “matter of choice.” Compulsory education calls for a rigidity to its structure which forms a burden on learning. The more colleges act “compulsory,” the more they will take on the shape of secondary education, impeding education, in the sense that Blake judged hindrances–as in

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

As I build my reading list, I’m thinking about the effect of ancillary texts; how do I create a list that will lead to the building of another list by the reader. We come away from “school” with a body of knowledge and attitudes. But does this body suggest a hypertextual tree of life? Do we leave high school ready to add to what we know, to seek out “more” or to change it? Or do we leave relieved, ready for something different, wanting to forget the past? An excellent read should be like an excellent fajita, an “experience” you want to pursue and refashion and consider on your own. Personally, one of the interesting things about my memory is the smell of roasting chiles (chee-less: the pronounciation has a lot to do with the smell and the taste in my memory). Some readers think that there may be some knowledge out there that they need to “get,” some fruit that they have yet to experience, that will help them understanding things better. It may be that, as Plato would say, it’s the pursuit of one thing to the next, a building on the first “discrete/non-discrete” element due to the second that adds a little color to the fruit.

You read a poem. Then a second. The first unfolds a little more. The first adds to the second. Then comes the third and the first and second are dashed against the rocks.

Thoughts on a Canon, 2

I’ve basically given up in trying figure out why I like some books over others. I know that I’ve been influenced by lots of variables. I like the Gran Turismo series of simulations because I like to win races, money, and I love that heart-race when I just barely beat the oppenent. The hands shake and you go, “Yes, beat you, you bastard.” I like beating the machine and outsmarting it. It’s not a question of high mindedness or bettering myself. It’s a rollercoaster.

And why do I enjoy the stories of Alice Munro? In fiction I look for an interesting story, a fabulous sense of craft, and a dip into ideas. But those are vague criteria. Doesn’t Clive Cussler tell an interesting tale? In my mind, not at all. What about Stephen King? I don’t find Pet Cemetary interesting, no. I read Stephen King for how scary things could get (although I did find the metaphors I found in Misery appropriate). But then I found Kundera and figured that The Joke was a pretty scary tale if you looked at it through a particular lens. Kundera’s terror is a different kind of terror than King’s. The vision of The Joke is of a terrifying politics and society which resonantes with relevance, more so than Brave New World. Both novels signal possibility, but from my point of view Huxley is naive.

One of my top novels is Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are many reasons why I reread this novel. Stylistically (in translation), the writing is beautiful, energetic, risky, and because of this, I like to read passages outloud and to myself, just to hear the craft, the music, and the logic. Secondly, there’s the serious comedy here. Garcia Marquez draws incredibly huge characters who are also incredibly funny, serious, tragic, and honest. They’re pathetic, monstrous, masterful, crafty, hateful, and strange. You don’t want them to die or change, but they do; you don’t want them to make mistakes, but they do. Third, Marquez connects to significant human ideas such as time, memory, structure, hope, dignity, justice, history, love, sex, and want. Philosophical, political, social, and personal content is woven deeply into the work. When you talk about One Hundred Years of Solitude, you can find a lot of thing to talk about: the writing, the narrative, the sequence, the culture, history, gender, religion and a lot more. I believe also that I’ve seen a lot of what the author gets down in the novel, having traveled through Mexico and the Southwest US, an issue that is more subjective and true to my own experience of landscape, color, and light. It’s possible to say when I hear a politician say something dumb I could say I’ve already seen that in Kundera and Marquez, just as when we see the leader talk like a machine, we can say, “Oh, that’s what Orwell was referring to.” Lastly, of the many books I’ve read, One Hundred Years of Solitude has one of the best closers I’ve ever encountered. The end draws you back to the beginning with such a punch, you race through the novel just to feel its totality. Just the thought of Pico de Gallo or of Jalapenos makes my mouth water. Mention Marquez, and the same thing happens.

But, in my mind, Borges is still bigger. Why? No reason other than I enjoy his mind more than I do Marquez’. But, it’s unfair to compare them. Borges wasn’t necessarily concerned with the fictional story as he was with the very idea of “fiction.” Borges provides me with a language with which to struggle through ideas and one of those terms is “fiction.” I like the idea of an aleph as a metaphor for “reality” and “sight” and human experience.

Thoughts on a Canon

Some remarks have been made here about the politics of choice concerning human knowledge. It must be made clear that this subject is tricky. What to view and what to see in order to take into consideration human knowledge is a considerable issue. To help, I could be evasive and claim that dogs don’t write books, therefore, I need not bother asking what books I should read by “Rover.”

“What is the latest book of poetry written by Rover?”

“Her output has been very little.”

“Anything, then?”

“No, nothing.”

“What about by Coco?”

I can conclude then that it’s human stuff I have to deal with to know things from a particular point of view. But things are even more complicated because of the issue of commodities. Books are a commodity these days, therefore, to judge human knowledge today also involves certain economic considerations. Poor Henry out there has written a book explaining all of nature, but the agents and the book publishers want nothing to do with him. That’s what I mean. Henry’s also written a novel whose characters are so sweat and sublime that his book puts Cervantes and Pynchon to shame. Unfortunately, he lost the file due to electrical storm and his backups are all crazy-looking, like the symbols of machine language. Henry gives up and ends up reading books on famous grill jockeys.

The point is we have to choose what’s illuminating and what isn’t. “Isn’t” may make the list of your neighbor. You congretate in the backyard over drinks and fight about who contributed more and contributed right. A gunbattle follows. Aliens zoom down and wonder at the two books sprinkled with blood. They conclude that there was really nothing here and zoom off to other happy hunting grounds.

Some people have it easy. The books (or magazines) have been chosen for them, as in the “Great Books” or the “Classics” of the New York Times big sellers lists. Tradition. I enter the library and there’s a huge book on a table. I don’t know who put it there but I sit and open and read. Maybe I don’t like what I see there; maybe I do. Maybe someone’s slipped in a postcard with weird symbols on it. By the way, there’s a painting on the wall. Next door to it is a photograph of the very same subject.

Here we always go back to the notion of modern spaces to fix a context for a potential canon of work. It’s as Neha identifies herself: “I’m a lit major.” It’s as Susan Gibb identifies herself: “A student of the word.”

Reading the tea leaves, 8

In reviewing the reading series in development here, I think I can come to a few major conclusions: I’m considering reading in two senses:

1. Reading as everyday (existential) activity: reading the self, environment, and landscape
2. Reading as cultural act and agency–multiform(al)/function(al) literacy

Literacy is applicable to both, but I would argue that literacy in its presence sense is more in line with the professions, scholarship, and specialization (I heard it used just the other day in this context). Likewise, both areas can involve degrees of skill and value. In English studies close reading is valued over the glance or surface read and thus the skill of close reading is emphasized in the classroom and developing the skill is supposedly addressed in the teaching pedagogy. But the term “close reading” can be ambiguous, in that people assume multiple meanings in its use, especially when we talk about education policy and schooling. Surely to deconstruct a text involves close reading, as would any other critical or philosophical aesthetic applied to texts. There are indeed different ways of reading William Carlos Williams’ poem To Daphne and Virginia

The smell of the heat is boxwood

    when rousing us

      a movement of the air

stirs our thoughts

    that had no life in them

      to a life, a life in which

two women agonize:

    to live and to breathe is no less.

and Dean Young’s I Am But a Traveler in This Land & Know Little of Its Ways

Is Everything a field of energy caused
by human projection? From the crib bars
hang the teething tools. Above the finger-drummed
desk, a bit lip. The cyclone fence of buts

surrounds the soccer field of what if.

–But, of course, this is well known, even though the poems may not be. Yet, I’m nagged by the second of the two main ideas. Is one way of reading better than another? What does best justice to the poem or to the photograph at least for the reader who wants to read: the biographical approach, which informs a reading of Williams’ Asphodel, that Greeny Flower by looking for the connection between real life and the poem; the new critical approach which takes the poem as a self-contained work; the post-structuralist, which, as a set of approaches, focuses on the ambiguities and complexities of meaning, identity, and construct; the reader-response, which places the reader at the heart of the process? It may be that these are pointless questions. If someone wants to compare Williams’ life to the things he writes about, I’d say, go for it (who is Daphne?). Likewise, if one wants to read the philosophy of Derrida or Jacques Lacan or explore the notions underpinning colonialist writings, that’s excellent too. Or what about studying the patterns of things and get into the philosophy of recursionism, a la Escher?

All of this is taking me off track though, it would seem, because anyone can seek out the approaches and use them to understand some part of the stone to whatever degree this may be possible. Is it fine to bring forth the story then of the three readers: the poet, who observes the stone; the geologist, who tells us its parts, and the capitalist, who will figure its market value. Three readers, three stones. But is there one “essential” stone around which all three congregate with gloves on?

At my son’s recent eye test at the doctor the nurse held up a chart and asked, “What is this?’

“It’s a glove,” he said.

What do you think he was looking at?

On reading the city

Nerd journalist Mark Anastasio reads the city:

Stepping out into the steets of San Diegos’ Gas Lamp Quarter this morning, we were taken aback by the smell of freshly scrubbed streets and the lack of pastey white geeks(not unlike myself) milling about in a merchandise induced stupor. Along the sides of the road lay the foamy reminents of city soap, diluted with fanboy drool, dandruff and keys to Mothers’ basements. It had seemed as though we’d gotten a headstart on them. The endless halls of B-list celebrities, video games, and comic books had surely tuckered them out. Yes, the anteaters of popular culture had surely slept in . . .

Read for more coverage of Comic-Con here.

Reading lists

I’m currently working on a reading list for a friend. It’s a list of suggested readings build on two parts, foundational texts and advanced. The foundations include such authors as Augustine, Saîkaku, Montaigne, and Julius Caesar, while the advanced (in time) include Kristeva, Ong, and Feynman. The readings are world-oriented and cover intellectual history. This isn’t a list of favorites, but what I consider influencial texts across the areas of human concern and the human life-world, so we have poetry, politics, history, philosophy, architecture and science among the offerings.

So, you’re a canon builder. A friend comes to you in all honesty and asks for a “course” in the breadth of human making? What would your list include?

On reading the tea leaves, 7

Everyone needs money to live. Saying that reading often involves quality depends on who you ask.

Certainly the cashier at McDonalds makes less money than the doctor. But it could be true that the fry cook at the local diner enjoys his job more than the surgeon, who has a secret fear of the color of entrails.

But all of this should be taken as a given. Beauty may is in the eye of the beholder, as is quality. And certaining the notion of “skilled” reading depends on time, place, context, and country. The guy who’s just lost his job probably could give a rat’s ass about whether Dante is high art. Yet, if you ask the professor, the answer could be that even though there are many people out there seeking survival pay, Dante is still a great poet. Surely the college freshman’s attitude about Dante shouldn’t be taken all that seriously, given that typically they don’t know enough to be sincere about the subject (as in any other case like this), just as I can’t really be sincere in my judgement of black holes as being either a corny idea or flabergastingly exact and cool. (How can I claim to deny evolution if I am just not familiar enough with it to say yay or nay?) I am not a fan of the Beetles, but I know enough about music to know that the Beetles’ output is pretty darned amazing, and that their music over time is consistently competent. What range, what nuance, and talk about play with the landscape, and they did it over and over again. But I wouldn’t purchase a single bit of it.

Judgement in many cases has simply to do with agnosis. If you haven’t read Dr. Suess how can you judge the work? How many people decry the violence of video games yet wouldn’t know a console from a shoebottom. Some people claim that science can’t explain everything thus we need religion to fill in the holes. Right. So many mysteries and the size of the universe is proof of something.

In English studies (or for the English major, just to keep things in sponsorship), one of the most valuable forms of reading is called “close” reading. It’s the primary goal of foundational studies of literature and from that point all other things are derived. First you learn to study the text’s nuances, understand its literal meaning, it’s details, vocabulary, structure, then you move on to bigger and better things (wink, wink). You read a poem first for what’s on the page or waving through the air, then you move to figures of speech, implied meaning, form, influence, and the weird things that happen when you manually play the record in reverse (Abner, Abner, Abner or some such thing if you remember the old ELO trick). You take the surveys, a few major authors, then enter graduate school and hit the critics and the multiverse and experience what you don’t have time for in the basic undergrad curriculum. Check out the courses at major universities for what’s currently being taught for Ph.D. How about Piers Plowman in the original? How about a whole bunch of southwestern or Chicano/a fiction and history? Why not? How about a whole bunch of Chinese literature? It’s not just about the literature, depending on what that means; it’s also about the culture? This makes the question of Dante in Italian or English a little more profound. And what about Kafka? It was Borges who consulted the Oracle and walked away with a new kind of grin. Good luck knowing your multiplying selves.

We can talk about the art of reading without ever picking up a poem. I found this list from the Army’s website just to make a point about “reading” and the idea of “reading for.” Why would it be suggested that leaders read Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization?

On reading the garden

Here’s Susan Gibb on reading

As I weed, I am thinking about how I am reading the soil, the dill, the crabgrass. All the years of gardening have taught me to recognize most weeds and vegetables from the time they are only about an eighth of an inch high. I know that weeds sprout and grow faster than most desirable plants, and can soon overtake the especially slow-growing herbs. I used to use a trick in sowing rows, tossing in a few radish seeds along with the rest because they come up quickly and will mark the rows easily before the rest come up. It works, but this tool was interfering with the slower basil; radish grow so quickly that they push everything out of the way, and by the time you pull them, you are as well destroying the basil. The tool then becomes a blockage to good growth, it is in the way.