Category Archives: Reading: a series

Thoughts on the act of reading

On reading the tea leaves, 6

In higher education the teaching of reading is woven into its own curriculum and throughout the academy. Biology teachers are concerned that their students are able to read the text book, thus the sciences have made prerequisites that involve reading instruction a part of their own. This is a good because it reinforces the practical essence of what reading instructors profess about the importance of reading at more and more critical levels. Success in biology can be traced back to students’ ability to remember what they read and apply analysis to problems in science, which depends upon a certain amount of competency that is often taken for granted.

For success in school, the ability to grasp the text book is important across the curriculum, from biology to Computer Science, and in this cross-curricular context, we use the term literacy to describe, classify, and critique degrees and types of competency. Simply put, there are many levels of literacy (or knowing the letters), which is what is being extended here by Michael Mateas in an essay that makes good sense. Part of the issue here has to do with the culture of “knowing about something,” which is an awfully broad angle to take. To claim “a” literacy is to claim competency. But this also involves the politics of knowledge and tradition, of which Dante as man and “European” has often been at the center. What to teach, how to go about that teaching; what to learn and how to contextualize that learning within a tradition; what to leave in and what to leave out, the politics of the canon of thought–these questions aren’t limited to the humanities. The debate over which is the better theory to explain nature is a hot topic today in math and physics. What are the assumptions we make about how to teach reading and writing to college freshman? How does “how we teach” shape our concept of the human and the idea of liberal education. Do we limit definitions of literacy to suit our professions or positions? Are our conclusions really beneficial or are they protectionist or just plain wrong? These days we have to develop objectives and outcomes that define technical competency, which is not an easy job. At the same time, within the academy, we must also assert competencies that maintain the rigors of traditional as well as emerging areas of study.

With all this we can come to some conlcusions about reading that I would maintain are obvious:

1. All people are readers in the broad sense. The gardener reads the garden; the traveler reads the landscape; and the engineer reads the particular system.
2. In the professions, people maintain various reading competencies given their relevant knowledge contexts.

1 and 2 are treated as amorphous spaces which are indistinct but are classified culturally and qualitatively in a democracy. The burgerflipper, who reads the complicated space behind the counter, is just as much a part of the culture as the doctor, who reads the body and the germ, and it isn’t my place to assign value to either. Nor is it my job to assert human worth to a particular place of rest or work. Other people do that all the time. Yet, taking such a phenomenon will make for a good start in on reading #7.

On reading the tea leaves, 5

One of the things I want to stay away from in this series on reading is the idea of a Victorianesque high and low quality to the act and object–good books, bad books, good poetry, bad poetry. That there is high and lowbrow, and for those who would take issue with this, then you can certainly take me to task about it. But if I’m walking through the desert, lost or perfectly compassed, that’s where I am. What else should I want to see?

Then why Dante, who everyone claims is great. The answer is, why not Dante? And if not Dante, what? The Rosanne Barr show? Facade? Why was I in the desert in the first place? That’s a perfectly fine question to ask, it would seem to me. There has to be a reason. Was it a test? The hero’s journey on a small stage? I walked the mountain and braved the heat to burn myself down to a glowing orb of life, free of spoil and smut. The many reasons why we read for me isn’t at issue here. I don’t find McCarthy a pleasure to read (how could one find pleasure in a world where all the trees have been cut down around the Lorax’s fluffy beard) ; One Hundred Years of Solitude is a fantastic experience; and Borges, my favorite, isn’t something you come at lightly. This is more about experience, not judgement, although I will have to come to some sort of conclusion about the object.

Some people will talk about the pleasures of gardening and yet will avoid all the hard work it takes to keep phlox alive in that spot where you want the color and the smell to shape the experience of designed landscape. Is there something wrong with a person who yanks the phlox out, thinking it’s a weed? Yes, from my end. To someone else, the stuff’s a pain in the ass and would therefore prefer the coreopsis. Some people go head over for sushi (in the old days a means of preserving food), but for me, its current form is tastless and nothing compared to a good spicy mole. Then again, should I become more discriminating about modern food (or photography for that matter)? Is sushi not for more refined or cultivated tastes? Am I missing something? Or are people who go on about sushi just food snobs, who eat cuisine rather than oatmeal, who know better about health, and who sneer at poptarts. About this, I can only contemplate.

The fact of the matter is, my boyhood book case shaped my reading habits and I can’t really do anything about that (so the fair was Dante and Edgar Rice Burroughs). The environment that surrounded the city of El Paso also shaped the way I read New England. Because of where I grew up tacos were closer at hand than pan-seared bass from Chile and I couldn’t appreciate Robert Frost until I saw the ice on real birch trees. In addition to place, my friends also helped shape “experience.” We had Dante and Tarzan, but we’d also sit around and talk about the books we read. It wasn’t sophisticated talk: it was more like, “Oh yeah, Tarzan could kick Conan’s ass.” Then we’d draw from the hero’s actions to prove it and do a form of textual analysis. We’d argue. We’d wonder about the fictional world. And where are some of these friends now? I have no idea. But I can still remember the arguments.

So, what will it be: Bethoven’s 7th or Tom Jones?

The object of reading

In a prior post, I’d written that my friend Susan Gibb might have been referring to a thing called “skilled reading.” But I must retract the use or implications of such “quality” terminology. Why, because “skilled reading” may imply too much of the “object” in its interpretation. Here’s what I mean: let’s say we have 2 things that people typically read: Dante’s Inferno and Stephen King’s The Stand. Does the former need more of a “skilled” approach than the latter? Or does this complicate matters and bring in a reading “ethic”? Obviously, one must have the terminology and concepts down to understand a Nature article on some discovery pertaining to quantum gravity or what they often talk about over at The Panda’s Thumb. But in terms of Dante and King, does such a hierarchy apply . . . yet?

On reading the tea leaves, 4

In a comment Susan Gibb writes

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.

The subject here of course is “skilled” reading. I don’t know if I’m ready to respond to such a notion because there are a lot of issues at play with “reading” in the sense that Susan means it. The question may be, do we read for theme?

Christopher Coonce-Ewing is a budding historian. What does he read for? Would he be a good historian if he only read the sweet writing to be found on shampoo squeeze bottles?

Reading and writing are two different acts, but they involve similar processes. Most people don’t consider that they read every day, which is the initial point: they read themselves constantly. One way to read a novel is to read “for” how a character reads themselves, as in the novel “Suttree,” where a constant act of reading happens in the third person. The writer reads the world as she works and the reader puts something together as he reads. Consider again the traveller. In the desert a pause on the theme of color may occur or it may not. What matters for the traveller is to involve himself in infinitives. To find, to avoid, to discriminate, to see. Some of this needs to be auto response. Sometimes the traveler will see something interesting, like the pink under clouds, but the pink under the clouds has nothing to do with the reason for traveling: to make it home, in this case. Now lets say we have two travellers. These travellers are spaced apart by 100 yards. Each covers the same ground and both have a common destination. The object is to get them to a place of rest and have them compare notes. What happens next? How do we describe what follows? Do they argue? Do they talk about origins? When can we say that they “began” to read the world around them? How does gender influence what they saw, what they remember, how they reacted? How age? Height? Experience? What if one was bilingual and knew the colors of things in Sanskrit? What if one had a marked fear of spiders yet only had the image of a spider from the stories told by his parents?

Reading the body (Part 3 of reading the tea leaves)

At the moment I’m semi-watching some guy named John of God read peoples’ sicknesses and use the power of dead doctors to attempt cures on them. He just stuck forceps (a term also used to describe the rearend of an earwig) up a woman’s nose and twisted the hell out of something in her head to cure a serious back problem. I hope the woman’s problem is solved. He just did it again to a woman with a tumor in her breast.

They say it doesn’t hurt.

Reading the tea leaves, 2

The verb “to read” is an odd expression. The older Germanic tongues treat the word as related to counciling or advising, if we can even backtrack through the present use of the word to a related source. In other senses it points to the act of gathering: gather characters, gather stuff. In Hugh of Saint Victor, this is the act of plucking grapes in the textual vinyard. In the old days, of course, not a lot of people read as we do. Not much existed in letter form to read, and those who did read, such as monks, read outloud, as they still do at the mosque and in church. The teacher knows what she means when she uses the word “read,” while the student probably thinks something else. Lots of people know what they mean by it. When someone says, “I read it in the newspaper,” we know what the guy means. Everyday people read the newspaper and do a pretty good job of it most likely. What do people do when they watch the news and encounter the little ticker that runs at the bottom of the screen? They read it, of course. But do they read it differently than they “watch” the newsperson tell them about the latest cheap trick on Capitol Hill? Of course not, even though both the anchor and the letters are shapes in a square window.

Then again, we could go back and consider other basic issues as they concern reading. To divine is associated with reading in the sence of “reading the entrails” of a chicken or, in the same tradition, reading the spitout of a computer simulated weather forcast. Our local scryers “divine” and “advise” us everyday on the nature of “nature.” Sometimes they nail it, sometimes they don’t. Both the weather person and the hepatoscoper practice “reading” as advisors. Talk about “reading into.”

As a literature teacher, which is truly an odd job (why would someone pay money to read Dante when they could grab a book and hit the Divine Comedy themselves), students often respond to my routines over a text with this response: “Aren’t you reading into this a little much?” Of course, I have a stock response because such a critique is to be expected, even when we deal with just basic maneuvers. The question usually comes from a person who doesn’t want to talk about a work at all (therefore, even the most surface of readings is “too deep”), has lots of other things weighing on them, is unfamilar with basic reading techniques, is unfamilar with texts in general (therefore would respond to any technique impatiently [in my experience this is the most common case]), or sees alternative readings as a competition at which they keep losing. What some students learn is that reading “can become” an act of demystification and journey (although it doesn’t have to be), rather than simply as a way of finding the door out or getting to the last page. The film scholar and the director know that form is critical to keeping an audience’s attention. The audience of a film may not know the form objectively but they are able to “recognize” the story; they can reform it as they watch. Without the form, the screen wouldn’t make sense. Imagine a detective program that began with a crime but refused to solve it. The thousand of years of practice that people have had with poetry can’t just be thrown off in a text that claims to be poetry. In this case, one would have to call it something else, just as one would have to call the program above by something other than a genre show. Nothing wrong with that, I don’t think. This is not to confuse the question with that oft troubling “Is it art or is it not art” question. To define poetry is often difficult without calling up “sonnet” or uttering “Soto.” In some cases, defining poetry is a waste of time. Those who wish to define should simply write some, drink wine or bottled water, write some more, then go to sleep. In the morning, do it again. But this may all be blather.

What’s the answer to the question above? The answer is not, “I’m not reading into it too much.” The answer is, “Does the Divine Comedy read the same in English as it does in Italian?” My response would be, I have absolutely no idea.

On reading the tea leaves

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.