Category Archives: Reading

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).

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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.