Category Archives: Reading

Magical travel in the COVID era

Though virus restrictions continue to immobilise us, or at least rule out international touring, we can still visit far-off lands quite easily. Yesterday, in perfect comfort and without risking infection or breaching flight prohibitions or incurring any expense, I spent a few pleasant hours in a foreign country. How? Magical travel.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (public domain)

 One of the Arabian Nights tales tells how a prince acquires a carpet with wonderful properties:

“Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place near-hand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

This princely device is within our own reach. We all have access to imagination’s magic carpet whenever we pick up a book.

Almost any act of reading takes us metaphorically from one place to another, even if the content of what we read may not involve a sequence of actions and locations. Traversing the text brings us to a mental destination that’s different from where we began. But this imaginary journey structure is most salient when we engage with narrative forms — not only novels or short stories but also non-fictional travel literature.

Travel literature has a long history, going back to writers such as Pausanias, a peripatetic Greek cultural geographer in the 2nd century AD. The genre came into its own in the Victorian period, when steamship and rail opened up the world to large numbers of tourists whose appetite for exotic journeys was stimulated by itinerant journalists. (The restless main characters in my novel The End of Longing, set in the late 19th-century, embody this new-found transnational mobility.)

But then the first half of the 20th century, with its devastating experiences of two world wars, economic depression, fearsome pandemics and widespread poverty, pushed leisure travel out of the reach of many people. So by the 1950s the reading of travel literature had become a popular substitute for journeying in person.

 Which brings me back to my imaginary excursion yesterday: it was achieved through H.V. Morton’s  A Stranger in Spain (1955). This book has been on my shelf for many years (I acquired it as a school prize), and reading it took me not only to the particular country that is its subject but also back to the time when it was written. In my corner of the world, that was a period before TV documentaries brought remote locations into the home, and before most people had the wherewithal to afford any bodily expeditions to Europe.

So travelogue books like Morton’s were a primary source of information about unfamiliar places. In those days of cheap publication they seldom carried high-quality photographs, if any. The writer had to bring places and people and culture to life through resourceful uses of language. This was “creative non-fiction” before the term was invented.

In A Stranger in Spain the creative element isn’t a matter of elaborately depicted scenery and splashes of local colour. What Morton often does, with skilful economy, is to focus on particular individuals and their activities in a way that evokes a characteristic cultural attitude.

On the first page, recounting his arrival at the airport in Madrid, he sketches in a few well-chosen words the interaction between disembarking passengers and airport officials. A “costly-looking” woman is unlocking her luggage, “watched by two Civil Guards, who had the eyes of melancholy stags.” (Can’t you just picture them?) The passage continues:
I was impressed by the white cotton gloves which the Customs officers drew on before they probed into the luggage. I was soon to learn that white gloves are a symbol of the Spanish sense of fitness. A glove is an aristocratic symbol, and was once worn only by kings and bishops. As the world becomes more democratic one sees fewer gloves, and the clenched fist, of course, is always bare.
There’s a lot packed into those simple sentences. They evoke a distinctively stylish national sense of decorum; they gesture towards a long history of social stratification; and they allude to the country’s more recent history (the clenched fist salute originated in the Spanish Civil War, and when Morton’s book appeared Franco was only halfway through his four decades of dictatorship). The same kind of succinctness continues to characterise Morton’s prose. Straight after the passage just quoted, he observes Mexicans and Peruvians queuing at a passport window, “conquistadores in reverse,” and remarks that “Spain is one of the few places where America does not mean the USA.”
Although the best travel documentaries shown on our screens these days may bring exotic scenes to us with a vivid immediacy that seems to surpass any words on a page, they also lose something that writers like Morton can provide: the stimulus to our imagination. A Stranger in Spain, precisely because its medium cannot rival the realism of a filmed image, relies on the reader to visualise what a well-turned phrase conjures up. That’s its magic. That’s what can move us.

A pleasant antiviral activity

Wondering how to cope with the impact of COVID19? Troubled by the prospect of spending more time (by choice or necessity) in germ-avoidance isolation? Here’s a pleasant antiviral activity that you can enjoy:  reading!

While you’re still able to go shopping, stock up right now with a batch of new books. Your local bookstore isn’t likely to be dangerously crowded, so just make a quick visit, grab a generous armful of literary works, and take those thousands of pages of well-crafted words home with you for company. Then, before the dire moment comes (next week?) when normal social interaction shuts down, you’ll be well equipped to engage with vicarious relationships, imaginary journeys and stimulating ideas without leaving the safe cocoon of home.

You’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped to keep the book industry afloat during this period of economic stress.

I’ve just followed my advice by buying a swag of fiction titles from a new little bookshop nearby, which is worthy of particular support because it has only recently opened its doors — right at the time when COVID19 is beginning to threaten many small businesses.

This brave indie venture is Typeface Books, located in the Ardross Street “village” in the Perth suburb of Applecross. Its shelves carry a good range of quality publications (well, it stocks my novels!), and it deserves to attract plenty of customers. Check out its website here.

Wherever you get your books from, you can of course choose whether to read things that take your mind off COVID19 altogether or things that help you to confront it. If it’s the latter, you have no shortage of reading material;  it could include Albert Camus’ The Plague, David Herlihy’s The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, and Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders. Or you might turn to the global best-seller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in which Yuval Noah Harari argues (among other provocations) that humans are on the verge of becoming superhuman because in the last few decades we have managed to curb all three things that have previously held us back:  not only famine and war but also plague! “Epidemics are a far smaller threat to human health today than in previous millennia,” Harari says. Will he need to issue a revised edition?

Looking both ways

So we’ve crossed the threshold into another New Year.  Now what?

To the ancient Romans a doorway (or gateway) had such importance, both practical and symbolic, that it warranted a special deity to preside over it: Janus, the god of portals and transitions, beginnings and departures. January takes its liminal name from him. Images traditionally show him (and the year’s hinge-point) as two-faced, looking both back and forward, both inward and outward.

Wooden sculpture by Annette Seeman

I like to think of Janus as a suitable patron for writers and readers. Why? Read on…

Having no predecessor in the Greek pantheon, Janus is usually regarded as a Roman invention. But comparable images recur in the art and mythology of several other cultures. The one illustrated here is from a series of large wooden sculptures by Perth artist Annette Seeman called “Stories from the Indies,” which draw on her family links with Indonesian culture. This double-headed forked-tongue figure has belonged in my household for nearly 30 years, and to me it has the significance of a literary totem, among other things.

Looking both ways is what serious writing mostly tries to do, because it combines memory with imagination. On the spectrum connecting the past to the future, those two faculties apparently face in opposite directions: memory is retrospective, summoning up what used to be, while imagination is prospective, envisaging what might be. On the spectrum connecting oneself with others, memory and imagination again may seem to represent contrasting tendencies: the former generally looks inward, while the latter is potentially more outward-turning and wide-ranging. Yet memory and imagination are inseparable in the act of writing, just as the two faces of Janus belong to a single body.

Evidence from neuropsychology indicates that the mental processes of remembering and imagining are intimately linked. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with literary interests. Remembering (like writing) actively reshapes the material it works on. And as the White Queen remarks to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” As we recall details from past situations, we can recombine and adapt them into new imaginary scenarios.

Commenting on the title character in her recently released film Claire Darling (itself adapted from a novel), director Julie Bertuccelli says “Claire is forgetting things she prefers to let go of, and summoning up in her imagination some unfinished business from the past.” Isn’t this often also true of autobiographical writing, and of characters in novels or short stories? I’ll have more to say on that subject in a couple of public talks I’m giving in March at the Glyde-In Community Centre: see the Events page of my website.

Looking both ways is a distinctively human capability. In my novel That Untravelled World, young Harry Hopewell has a conversation with his girlfriend at the Perth Zoo. She asks him what he thinks the main difference is between humans and beasts, and he replies:

‘To my mind, it’s summed up in a saying that my mother likes to repeat. A little quotation from some poet – don’t know who: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not.” More than anything else, that’s what separates people from other animals.’

She wrinkled her forehead. ‘I’m not sure I understand. What does it mean to you, that saying?’

‘Just that we humans don’t live fully in the present, the way a lion or a pig does. A lot of the time we’re preoccupied with what used to be, and what might yet happen. With remembering and imagining. That’s not true of creatures in cages. I hope not, anyway – terrible for them if they have regretful or wistful feelings.’

“We look before and after…” — those lines are from Shelley’s To a Skylark, written two centuries ago but still resonant. The bird addressed in the poem sings beautifully, but for a human listener its song is tinged with the sadness that accompanies our sense of what’s beyond the present moment. Janus is always at our shoulder, and writers whose work has durable appeal are especially good at evoking this dual consciousness.

As readers, too, we’re often looking both ways. While there can be great pleasure in the feeling of being immersed in an act of reading, this is seldom separable (for narrative in particular) from what we anticipate and recollect as we proceed through the text.

And sometimes we stand back from a finished book to reflect on the general patterns of our reading, on our specific library or bookshop choices. I find myself doing this annually in early January, casting an eye over a record of what I’ve read during the previous year. (I’ve kept these lists for many years.) It’s interesting to see what assortment of genres my reading has covered: how much fiction, how much poetry, how much non-fiction of various kinds… Other aspects of a year’s list also strike me: how many recently issued books, how many older publications, how many re-readings of what I’ve read previously, how many by Australians, how many by men and women respectively, how many multiple titles by this or that author, and so on.

None of these categories have determined my choices, and similarly I won’t set myself any fixed program of reading for the year ahead. I don’t need a “challenge” list to motivate myself to keep frequent company with books. Some such sign-ups (the annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, for instance) are too narrowly political for my liking. I enjoy the freedom to select what I read without being constrained — whether by the writer’s national affiliation or by gender identity or genre or period or anything else.

Still, the New Year seems an apt occasion for calling to mind a few titles and authors I’d like to spend time with in the future. Memo to self: when choosing, look both ways.

 

The book-chat paradox

Reading and writing are essentially solo activities. Yes, they’re channels of communication, but they communicate indirectly through the printed page (or screen page). When we read or write, we do so as individuals – and generally in silence. Yet paradoxically, readers and writers can’t stop talking with other people about their literary experiences.

A book-chatterer at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

Most of us like (occasionally) to listen to writers speaking on the subject of things they have written. For those of us who are writers ourselves there can be a particular interest in hearing an insider’s comments on some aspect of the craft of writing. Literary festivals attract large audiences to sessions that feature various authors using the medium of speech – a very different medium from the written language in which they are supposedly expert.

Most of us also enjoy conversations with fellow-readers, comparing reactions and discussing opinions. The proliferation of book clubs and reading groups testifies to that.

Both of those kinds of book-chat can sometimes be disappointing, irritating, tiresome. In Sally Rooney’s recent novel Normal People a young student called Connell, who is himself beginning to write stories, goes along to a public reading by a notable visiting writer, and finds that ‘everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy.’ The writer’s performance is stiff, and Connell wonders ‘why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant.’ He reflects cynically that ‘they were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.’

No doubt some reading group members often feel similarly dispirited after a meeting in which the book-chat has been superficial, taken up with gossipy digressions rather than getting to grips with the literary qualities of the book that they have read (or half-read).

Yet despite our disappointments, we readers and writers continue to involve ourselves in book-chat. This isn’t really surprising, because the spoken word underlies all literature. Voice precedes print. Long before people began to produce books, long before writing emerged, singers and rhapsodic bards chanted epic stories and expressive lyrics around campfires and in ancient mead-halls.

At any rate, whatever reservations I may have about book-chat, I’m up to my neck in it. Within just the next week, for example, I’m giving talks to a couple of MALA groups about myth and literature, conducting a workshop for fellow-writers on editing towards publication, and speaking to the WA Genealogical Society on how a fiction writer looks at family history. Details about these occasions are on the Events page of this website.

Reading at a tangent

Recently, turning the pages of a newly released book, I’ve been reminded of the simple truth that different ways of reading can provide different kinds of pleasure.

Most of the time, whether it’s a newspaper article that we’re reading, or a poem, a novel or whatever else – we focus intently on what the language in front of us is directly presenting. We keep within a framework provided by the author because we want to follow closely the line of argument, or the plot, or the revelation of character, or the patterns of figurative meaning. The words on the page encircle ideas and images within which our attention is held. We try not to miss anything relevant, and so we stay within that circle, avoiding stray associations that might distract us.

But there is another, less disciplined kind of reading, which can yield another kind of pleasure. This happens when we move beyond the circle that the text itself has drawn around its subject matter, and let our thoughts wander off digressively.

This is what I call “reading at a tangent.” Being easily distractible, I often do it: I find myself thinking not so much about what’s within the text as about something that’s absent from it. It may be quite legitimately absent as far as the author’s apparent intention is concerned because it’s extraneous to the topic, off to the side at an odd angle. But to me, as a digressive reader, irrelevant associations can become absorbing.

I’ve enjoyed the experience of tangential reading while looking through Amanda Curtin’s just-published book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, a study of the life and work of a notable painter who (like me) was born in New Zealand and eventually found a home in Western Australia, but (unlike me) spent most of her life as an expatriate in France.

There’s much to admire in Amanda’s meticulously researched, imaginatively written and handsomely produced book, but I’m not offering a review of it here. Instead I’m just recording a few musings that it has brought to my mind – musings about possible questions and imaginary connections that lurk silently outside the circumference of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. In several passages Amanda indicates that she herself is aware of such possibilities but chooses not to pursue them, apart from a few speculative asides, because they are beyond the book’s scope. Fair enough. I’m not suggesting that she should have treated these things differently, just confessing to my own pleasurably undisciplined habits as a reader.

In this case what sets my reading off at a tangent is the fact that so many aspects of Kathleen O’Connor’s life remain obscure despite patient research. This is especially true of most of her personal relationships. Time and again Amanda scrutinises the available evidence in an effort to discover why Kathleen’s friend X seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour, or what may perhaps have been behind Kate’s coolness towards Y, or whether Z was really more than a casual acquaintance. Often the answers cannot be found. Kate was discreet, even secretive, and covered her tracks carefully.

This can lead a distractible reader (moi) to drift into a reverie about things that almost certainly didn’t happen to Kate but could conceivably have done so.

For instance, what if she had met Katherine Mansfield (who was also Kathleen until she adopted a pen-name)? Both spent childhood years in New Zealand, including Wellington, where they lived in the same street and went to the same school. Though KO’C was twelve years older, and left New Zealand when KM was only three, their paths might have crossed briefly in that little colonial outpost… Or later, as expatriates in London or Paris? Both women spent time to-ing and fro-ing between both those cities in the years 1906 to 1908, and again in 1914-16. Both, by then, were strictly dedicated to the vocation of an artist, though they differed not only in their choice of medium – the written word for KM, paint for KO’C – but also in their tastes. They were unlike each other, too, in temperament, and in their attitudes to men. KM was wildly promiscuous during those years; KO’C seems to have had a tendency towards ascetic habits.

But just suppose they had met, perhaps introduced by one of the many other antipodean-born writers and artists working in London or Paris: what would these two have thought of each other? Both tended to be severe in judging people, and my guess is that they would have irritated one other. If they had met after April 1917, they would have had one painful thing in common: each, by then, had suffered the loss of a brother on the western front. But they reacted differently to this trauma: KO’C wrote an embarrassingly sentimental verse tribute to Australian soldiers in general (which reveals not only a tin ear but also, as Amanda comments, an “emotional lack”), while KM’s response was to inscribe particular memories of her beloved brother into that great portrait of family and place, the story “Prelude.”

Still reading at a tangent, I begin to imagine other possible meetings of expatriate artists and writers in Paris and London during the time when KO’C was there. The New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins certainly did know KO’C, who was for a while one of her pupils and friends; but there is no record of FH ever meeting KM – though one of FH’s pupils while she was in Wellington was Edith Bendell, with whom KM had an erotic affair a couple of years later. So if FH and KM did happen to meet, and get talking about people they both knew, there might well have been some delicate nuances in their conversation.

Regarding the O’Connor/Hodgkins friendship, Amanda allows herself a passing conjecture about its sudden severance. “If there had been a romantic relationship between them, might that have contributed to the irrevocable nature of the estrangement? But I have seen no supporting evidence in Kate’s archives.”

This print of Rice’s Mansfield portrait has been above my desk for many years.

What if those three – FH, KO’C and KM had at some stage shared a table in a Montparnasse café, reminiscing about Wellington days? And if that had happened in, let’s say, 1922, the little gathering of female expatriate artists could also have included Australian writer and painter Stella Bowen (five years younger than KM), who had moved to Paris from London that year with her novelist/critic husband Ford Madox Ford, and also the American painter Anne Estelle Rice (one year younger than KO’C), who previously lived in Paris before the war, then moved to England, painting a famous portrait of her friend KM there in 1918, but often visited Paris during the 1920s.

As far as I know, KO’C never mentions Rice, though they both exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in the same years, 1911-13. Nor does she make any reference to Stella Bowen, though it’s hard to believe she hadn’t at least heard of her. But then SB’s talents were considerably more versatile than KO’C’s; they extended beyond painting to writing, and her  memoir Drawn From Life (1941, often reprinted) shows that she belonged to a much more prominent community of artists than KO’C ever did. KO’C, probably knowing this, might well have felt resentful. (I haven’t read Drawn From Life, but I’ve seen extracts from it in an absorbing chapter of Rosemary Lancaster’s book Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945.)

If those five had met together in 1922, surely sparks would have been flying. I’ve mentioned the tensions between FH and KO’C, and my surmise is that KM wouldn’t have found either of them congenial. As for SB, her literary circles were markedly different from KM’s. The previous year, KM’s husband John Middleton Murry had reviewed dismissively the latest novel by SB’s husband Ford, and the two men were intensely rivalrous editors of notable magazines. It’s likely that Rice, being close to KM and Middleton Murry, would not have been comfortable in SB’s company either.

Not a relaxed social occasion, I imagine. But all the more fascinating for that. It’s the sort of thing that can take shape when one reads at a tangent.

 

Required Reading

Our notions about literature, about what’s worth reading and how to read it, get shaped largely by the books we encounter at school. Texts set for study in English classes, especially in senior secondary years, tend to stay with us and influence our tastes as adult readers.

The authors and titles figuring most prominently in Australian surveys of the country’s favourite reading matter are much the same as those that recur in lists of required reading for thousands of school students. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet comes top of the list of Australian books, or very near the top, in the annual reader polls conducted by Booktopia. It was also the highest-ranking Australian title, close behind Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, in an ABC TV survey of ‘favourite reads.’

Such popularity is no surprise, because for more than 20 years Cloudstreet has been appearing regularly on the syllabus for secondary English and Literature in most states. No doubt this is partly attributable to its general ‘literary merit’, but many other highly meritorious Australian novels don’t achieve comparable recognition, and indeed ‘Cloudstreet is not widely accepted in the academy as a literary masterpiece.’ Its status probably owes a lot to ‘its power to evoke particular emotive responses with a voice, rhythm and location that is recognisably connected to the national mythology.’ Those quoted comments are by Claire Jones, discussing Cloudstreet as a ‘classroom classic’ in her chapter of a newly published book, Required Reading: Literature in Australian Schools Since 1945, edited by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett.

Some chapters in Required Reading look at the ‘teachability’ of other authors with a lasting classroom presence, such as Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and Judith Wright. There are also several broader historical analyses of curriculum change in particular Australian jurisdictions. My own chapter argues that text lists don’t tell the full story, because items selected for study are always ‘framed’ for their readers by ‘circumtextual’ factors – e.g. resource materials designated for use in teaching; official and unofficial rubrics inscribed in classroom practices; assessment methods and exam structures that encourage some choices or interpretations rather than others, and so on.

The book is based on a recently compiled database called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. It makes available for the first time a comprehensive source of syllabus details about English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in the texts prescribed for study over that period.

What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? You can find absorbing answers to those questions and many others in Required Reading.

Beyond ‘Juvenile’ and ‘Young Adult’ Books

IMG_4003The quantity of books marketed as ‘Juvenile’ or ‘Young Adult’ (YA) Fiction seems larger than ever, but do these categories cater adequately for teenage readers? It’s a question worth posing in the light of three things I’ve just been reading: an accomplished novel, a remark by a champion of books for the young, and a reminiscence by Charles Dickens.

Duncan Mackay’s Storm Callers (Fremantle Press) appealed to me when it came out in 2007 and still seems a fine example of what a skilled writer can achieve within the framework of Juvenile or YA fiction. Its two main characters, on the brink of high school, meet in a beachside caravan park during their summer holidays, and make some discoveries together – including discoveries about themselves.

Picking up my copy of the book again after a few years, I found tucked inside it a printout of my email exchange with the author, in which I’d tried to convey what particular qualities I appreciated. As a re-reading hasn’t changed my mind, I’ll summarise here some of the things I said to Duncan about those first impressions – and then I want to step back from this particular book and reflect generally on the kinds of reading that I regard as valuable for teenage readers.

The structure of Storm Callers creates a strong momentum: it begins in an engaging way and moves to a satisfying ending. (More about the ending shortly.) The characters are convincing, too. They evoke memories (distant in my case!) of what it’s like to be pubescent – the surge and ebb of enthusiasms, all the social awkwardness, the impulsive fabrications, the flaring and fading of friendships. The language is entirely appropriate, successfully managing the considerable stylistic challenge of filtering everything through the consciousness of a not-very-articulate boy.

What I found especially impressive was the tactful manner in which the story’s implications are lifted to a level above the prosaic. Mythological allusions are introduced without strain. It’s risky for the author of a realistic tale about adolescents in our time and place to refer not only to classical deities but also to biblical motifs, but Storm Callers does so quite convincingly, gesturing towards an archetypal theme – attaining knowledge of good and evil. This culminates in a movingly understated conclusion, with the final sentence faintly echoing phrases in the final lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

While revisiting Duncan Mackay’s book I was also prompted to think about the broad category of fiction for adolescents and mature children because I came across a not-very-recent online interview in which Monica Edinger discusses a book called A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She asks one of its editors, Roger Sutton, about his own early reading.

He says that from the age of about nine he read voraciously both adult books and children’s books, the great and the trashy alike. (That was true for me too, and probably for many who are reading this blog.) Sutton adds the following comment, which chimes with my own view:

I hope that today’s teen readers aren’t pushed away from adult books. While it is true that YA literature is wider and richer than ever before, it is largely restricted to coming-of-age themes, and sometimes you want to read about someone who has been there, done that, and moved on.

It’s illuminating, I suggest, to put that comment beside an eloquent reminiscence recorded by Charles Dickens. Dickens grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but books enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured at a tender age the stories of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he went around his house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. What he says about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent:

They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.

Often in the world of present-day pubescent and adolescent readers there is too much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. Certainly some stories that reflect everyday experiences and topical tribulations in which their teenage readers are already immersed may help to clarify what they feel, alleviate their worries, free their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for those readers to encounter grown-up fiction that is not set in their own place and time, not holding up a mirror to what and where they are but opening a doorway into richly imagined worlds elsewhere.

Deep reading: a dying art?

Could it be true that the increasing time most people spend on-line has produced an ‘eye byte culture’, making it more and more difficult for them to comprehend long passages of complex prose? That’s the sad probability indicated by cognitive researchers such as Maryanne Wolf, author of  Proust & the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain (reviewed here) and IT journalist Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (reviewed here).

photo-26

As the brain’s circuitry adapts to ever larger amounts of digital on-screen processing, it learns to scan and skim cursorily – but (so the argument goes) at the expense of traditional deep reading skills developed over centuries of engagement with words on pages.

Michael Rosenwald’s recent article on this subject in the The Washington Post quotes Wolf as reporting that many students of literature can no longer read canonical writers such as George Eliot or Henry James.

Habituated to on-line communication, they find it physiologically impossible to follow complex syntactical structures and interpret the intricate patterns of thought that those structures represent.

No wonder! Texts composed for electronic transmission normally curtail themselves for easy skim-reading. This is most obvious in emails and other quick messages, but advice on writing articles for the internet also insists on language that ‘cuts to the chase.’ There’s a strong preference for bullet points, short sentences, simple words – and especially ‘uncluttered syntax’, which means one should avoid subordinate clauses such as this one. (Being a truculent reactionary, I ignore such restrictive advice in my blog posts when it suits me.)

If constant exposure to on-line information is making our brains less able to cope with the kind of deep reading that serious writing demands – surely a Very Bad Thing – is there anything to be done about it?

One possibility is a Drastic Digital Detox. In her book The Winter of our Disconnect Susan Maushart describes how, as an experiment, she and her three teenage children pulled the plug on all their electronic media for six months. No computers, iPods, mobile phones, TV… And one result of this screen-free experience was (you guessed it!) that they re-learned how to read difficult literary works.

Such an extreme rejection of the  digital world is unlikely to appeal to more than a tiny number of people. Without going that far, one can surely make moderate efforts to minimise the addictive tendencies of screen fixation. Lengthening the intervals between checking the email inbox would be a good start. Curbing the habit of following an endless chain of hyperlinks with the internet browser might help a lot. Putting aside the TV remote for a while and picking up a novel instead is a good idea too.

After all, isn’t it just a matter of balance? Shouldn’t we – those who cherish the art of deep reading – simply continue to bathe our brains regularly with the kind of textual experience that’s mediated by books in their traditional form? There’s no need to abjure all exposure to the screen world’s flit and flicker, provided that it doesn’t become a substitute for frequent engagement with words on the printed page.

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a WriterDuring an exchange of comments following one of my recent posts on ‘Residues of Reading‘, I mentioned a stimulating book by Francine Prose (yes, that’s her real name!), and I’d now like to tell you a bit more about it.

The author, a New Yorker, has written twenty works of fiction and is also well known as a biographer, critic, essayist, and teacher of literature and creative writing. Near the beginning of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose records in these words an uncomfortable insight that came to her after some years as a classroom teacher who’d begun by seeing her role as a ‘cheerleader for literature’:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions…. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural and class backgrounds…. No wonder my students found it so stressful to read!

So she changed the way she taught. There would be no more general discussions of character and plot and half-baked readers’ opinions. Instead she made it her practice to begin at the beginning and work very gradually through a text with her students. This meant lingering over phrases, considering the effect of sentence structure, and so on.

Her book shows how important it is for a student (or any reader) to slow down and scrutinise the texture of the writing – noticing the subtle nuances evoked by an author’s selection of one particular word rather than another, the different ways in which a sequence of clauses can unfurl their meanings, the significant details of paragraphing, the implications of a chosen narrative point of view, and so on.

EinA coverI’ve adapted those summary remarks above from an article written last year for English in Australia in which I recommended Prose’s book and discussed similar approaches to teaching literature in  Australian school classrooms.

The practical emphasis that I wanted to endorse is on developing students’ sensitivity to connotations of language through close observation of short fictional texts, so that they can become confident about moving from the particular to the general.

(For an excerpt from my article, click on the cover image at left .)

Back to Prose’s book. Reading Like a Writer appeals to me for several related reasons. One is that it pursues its argument through a series of persuasive examples of close reading. Francine Prose astutely analyses a wide range of passages from various fiction writers, including famous names  – Austen, Chekhov, Dickens, Nabokov, Babel, Mansfield, Kleist, Beckett and others…along with several I hadn’t encountered before. Her commentary has ignited or re-ignited my enthusiasm for many stories.

Another thing I like about this book is that it affirms the value of reading heedfully. Although I can absorb a newspaper article in quick time, when it comes to serious fiction my habit has always been slow-motion perusal. I enjoy pausing and re-reading to savour the rhythm of a sentence, question the choice of this or that word, or think about the way a chapter has been constructed. So I applaud Prose’s advocacy of unhurried pacing.

A third virtue of Reading Like a Writer is that its illuminating observations about narrative technique are valuable for those of us who practice or teach or study creative writing. Nobody can write well without learning to read well. The two activities are symbiotic. As writers we hope to find readers who will re-enact something of our creative process by looking up reflectively from the page – as we ourselves do when we shape it – and looking back attentively again, letting the language do its intricate work.

In The Pleasure of the Text (trans. Richard Miller) Roland Barthes says, ‘What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I dip in again.’ He adds that a text is most pleasurable ‘if, reading it, I am led to look up often.’ 

Now that’s reading like a writer.