Monday, October 17, 2011

Ryan Call, On Reading

"My mother has a rule regarding books: don't throw them. As children, my sister and I were not allowed to throw books in our parents' house. We could throw other objects, certainly, and we did throw other objects, often at each other, but we did not throw books. Now, whenever I throw a book, I think about my mother and how much I love her."

Ryan Call is the author of The Weather Stations (Caketrain). His stories appear in Mid-American Review, New York Tyrant, Conjunctions, Annalemma, and elsewhere. He teaches English and coaches cross country at a high school in Houston. Visit him here for more information.}

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alissa Nutting, On Reading

"I grew up in a very safe, boring home. It’s no accident that ‘boring,’ as a verb, means ‘to drill a hole.’ Life as we currently experience it gives us a lot of holes, from boredom and many other places; voids that we fill with a variety of things, by necessity, in order to feel full enough to keep going. I’ve tried quite a few methods of easing the pain of lack (an inescapable pain that even the best live-rs will feel now and then, given our temporary lives, faulty bodies, and general dearth of control). Of every salve I’ve tried, I would like to give my endorsement to books.

As a child, books were the spaces where I could go make all the unwise decisions I knew deep down I wanted to make but was not permitted (they still are, except now I’m the one not permitting myself). For every urge, there is a book (and if there isn’t, you need to write it please). For every problem, there is a book (and if there isn’t…). Putting yourself between covers—inside an open book—is just as intimate and vulnerable an act as putting yourself between the sheets of a bed. You and the author are communing together in a way that no one else can ever know or experience.

Plus reading is the most polite selfish act ever. Sitting in a corner and reading, I emit very little waste or sound. I am not distracting to others. This is a benefit not to be underappreciated in a crowded world.

I mainly live in books, and have ever since I could read. Vicarious is an ugly word to many, but not to me, not when it comes to reading. Unlike a movie or video-game simulation, the act of reading is as personalized as a fingerprint. No two people have the exact same thoughts or visualizations when reading the same book. It’s an experience that is yours, and belongs to you, just as all that any of us ever have beyond the present—our memories—belong to us. Except for the current moment, we have nothing, really, but the slides stored in our imagination.

As a form of acquisition, reading makes me wildly greedy. I try to read up on anything I’m curious about, afraid of, obsessed upon, or unfamiliar with. Reading is another word for more—more experience, more knowledge. More understanding. When I want more, I read, and it feels like I get to throw a few more handfuls of dirt into the chasms, the omissions of life that sting."

Alissa Nutting, an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at John Carroll University, is the author of the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her website is}

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.}