Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tim Horvath, On Reading

"My daughter is learning how to read right now one room over at the very moment I’m writing this. And I am sitting on the couch, or was until I broke off to write this, learning how to read myself. We talk about knowing how to read as if it is like knowing how to tie shoelaces, or how to prepare a particular meal—an either/or, a process that we might master, proudly strutting in our newly-knotted sneakers and ladling lobster-speckled paella onto plates. But the more I do of it, the more I suspect that we never really know how to read. It might sound like I’m being archly postmodern, taking shots at fish-barrel range at the very possibility of knowledge, but that’s not what I’m going for.

My daughter sounds out words…oftener she gets them right, the short ones almost always. She asks things like “is it a ‘c’ or a ‘k’ in ‘crackle?” She gets stymied on 'musicians.' She writes 'j' for 'ch' and in her own story writes 'ixclamd,' which I can only think of as a word in a language spoken somewhere with a brutal climate. Her questions, when they arise, are readily answered. The fun, for her, has just begun.

It verges on cliché that every difficult book must teach the reader how to read it. These days I am dipping into Joshua Cohen’s Witz, in which I might get hung up on 'the throb of shaigetzes.' But most of the words in Witz are familiar; it is not the vocabulary that makes it a challenging, if uncommonly pleasurable read. It is more that with its gushing, pagelong sentences and profusion of allusions, it is just plain tough going. To know when to count a clause/sentence/page done, or done enough to move on. Impossible? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, though, that I will never know how to read this book. And I often wonder whether reading even simpler, more straightforward books is just as mysterious.

In this spirit, then, I ask, do you know if you’ve read a book? If you have read all but the last twenty pages have you read it? When, as a teacher, I assign reading, I expect my students to read. Sometimes the ones who have can’t provide specific details from what they’ve read, and sometimes those who haven’t can rattle them off like they wrote the thing. But even if we put the most flagrant cases of those who didn’t read on one side of the room (the spine uncracked, rods and cones that don’t know from the ink in question), I wonder how much those who have read really have in common. Have you read a book if you have consciously looked at all the words? What does 'consciously' mean? (Send in the neurophilosophers). Have you read a book if you have read it quickly and enjoyed it but not really reflected, not really thought about it? What is reflection, and how does it differ from recollection? Every reading a rereading, Nabokov mused, okay. But how do you even know if you've reread the first time? What makes you so sure? If your mind wandered, how much attunement to the words on the page qualifies you for to get the sticker, like the ones we wear on Election Day, that announces 'I READ'? In my daughter’s case, she might get actual stickers…

To read is just a damned odd verb, is what I want to say. Can we use place as an analogy? It strikes me that it’s a lot easier to know that you’ve visited a place than that you’ve read something. I suppose we could each visit a place and have such utterly different experiences of it that it seems like an entirely different place, and the same might be said for a book. Could we have such utterly divergent encounters with a book that it becomes, for all intents and purposes, two books? Actually bifurcates? Book cloning? Is that ethical? What I’m getting at, more broadly, can be underscored by this juxtaposition of reading and visiting a place. (But maybe we should problematize traveling, too. One might visit a place deeply or superficially. I want to at least think of myself as a proponent of deep traveling, not only wide.)

What is depth? What is width? In terms of reading, most, I think, would agree that reading widely helps you to read deeply, situates you in a context that helps your understanding of any individual work, and possibly we could say the same about traveling, that having been to many places augments your ability to appreciate a new place. But is that so? Could wide reading, in some instances, dilute, as going a bunch of places in rapid succession can make the places themselves seem too much the same, introduce too many parallels to be useful, turning it into routine and numbing the eyes and ears, all the senses with a surfeit of too-familiar exoticism? Well, could reading too widely do the same? Perhaps one ought to read with a deliberate narrowness, dwell in a single book for a year or more as we do with those we author. When others are consuming by the hundreds, trading favorites, rookies-of-the-year, etc. will you tout your scuffed, dogeared pair fifty times apiece? Is narrowness necessary, or even desirable, for depth? I do not know how to answer these things.

What I do know is that I am always learning to read. Nowhere does the dictum 'Zen mind, beginner’s mind' weigh so aptly. Sure there are times I’ll feel the opposite, the literary equivalent of pulling into the umpteenth city on a puddle-hopping whirlwind tour, jet-lagged and burned out. Another sleep-deprived innkeeper whose mustache flops onto the coffee-stained check-in registry? Another overzealous shopkeeper? I’ll read things where I’ll feel like 'I’ve already read this/seen this/been through this a hundred times before.' But more often I’m daunted. To take in all the undercurrents of sound, of implication, the unsaid, to translate between the spatio-temporal on the page and that in the world, to infuse voice and vision with life, to balance upright on the tendrils of text for the full swerve of a paragraph, giving due heed to every glint of nuance, to appreciate what the hell is going on in the story, to read both with and against the text and orthogonal to what is written…I will never really master this, I think, never get my sticker. Still, you will hear me go with convention and say 'I’ve read x, I’ve read y, haven’t read z yet, hope to get to it someday.' I will always be learning to read. But I do know that 'crackle' is spelled with a 'c,' unless it’s the candy bar, in which case yes, you can have exactly one."

Tim Horvath is the author of Circulation (sunnyoutside press) and the forthcoming collection Understories, which will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in May 2012. His stories appear in Conjunctions, Fiction, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Chester College of New England and works as a part-time psychiatric counselor.}


  1. I know I've read "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker. How do I know this? Because reading it last summer altered my life. "The Anthologist" has become a part of me as distinctly as one of my arms or legs. It's the first book I think of when anyone starts talking about reading. I laughed my way through it on the TGV while people around me stared in amazement. And curiosity, likely mixed with annoyance. I had to close it to stop laughing. I remember the experience of reading it as much as the content, probably more so. I would say that reading that book counts among one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
    Another book I read was Wuthering Heights, many years ago, when I was commuting into the city on Metro-North. The train arrived at Grand Central Terminal, but it wasn't until several minutes after that that I looked up from the pages to find that I was the only person left on the train. I beat a hasty retreat, fearful that I would be taken to the train yards for the rest of the day. Such compelling language, such beautiful sentences. Again, it's the experience of reading the book that I remember most, not the plot or character development.
    So I would say that you know you've read a book when you have a unique experience with it. This is not something that can be learned; it must happen on its own.

  2. Certainly, Anonymous, I would agree with this transformative potential of literature, and the way in which books and their sentences can get into our synapses and marrow, no doubt. Just as with travel, the places we go can become a part of us that we carry around. Lucky you to have had that experience several times over! My questioning was more along the lines of the idea that we learn how to read at some determinate point in our lives. I think even Baker's The Anthologist demands that one learn how to read it, maybe less so than The Mezzanine or Vox, but in some sense regardless. In fact, I think if one reads Baker's earlier work one has an entirely different experience of his newer work than one would otherwise. Does that mean one must "visit" these earlier books first in order to truly grasp The Anthologist? And you might read Wuthering Heights again and have an entirely different experience, where you were struck more by the characters than the language, or where there are sentences that you could swear weren't there the last time you read it. And that's my ultimate point, for whatever it's worth--that watching my daughter learn how to read has served as a reminder that such grappling is a lifelong process. Cheers!