Saturday, May 05, 2007
Some words about reading and writing
Last weekend we watched a rather unremarkable movie The History Boys. I found the movie incredibly boring save for one line--

Hector, the aged and weary teacher, told a student the best thing about reading:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

I loved that. Very much.

I've been thinking a lot about reading lately as I'm currently reading Jonathan Franzen's How to be Alone and Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life. Both are fantastic and should be very easy to get through but my reading has been interrupted a lot by life recently. But, in a way, I appreciate the slow way I am working my way through. It has read to a very meditative look at both works. I've had lots of time to dwell on the words and the messages.

I've always liked reading. Can reading be a skill? Because if it is, I have that skill. I read my first "novel" in second grade--Charlotte's Web. I very vividly remember sitting in our large yellow rocker and when I read the last word I yelled out to my mom that "I was done" and she smiled a proud smile. It was in that moment that I became a bit of snob. I connected reading to a proud smile. Connected reading to goodness. Connected reading to superiority. I devoured books. I locked my sister in our room when she was a mere toddler and taught her to read. I know now that she was merely memorizing the words I said and repeating them back to me but I felt proud that I shared the gift of reading with her at a young age. It was also convenient that I really only had one friend and she was a reader as well. I spent a lot of time in my room reading. Alone. I wasn't shy. Not at all. Quite the contrary-- as evidenced by my propensity to offer to read aloud in front of the class. And (I'm quite embarrassed about this now) correct my fellow classmates' reading errors publicly and loudly. Not shy. Never been shy. But I do like to immerse myself in a good book. I like the solitude a book provides. A sense of escapism. A sense of simultaneous closeness and distance from life.

How convenient, then, that I would choose a profession that demands a tremendous amount of reading and writing (which I'm beginning to finally conclude go hand in hand as interests). Further, it demands a tremendous amount of silence and voice. A connection to people yet the space to analyze on your own. I struggle with the amount of solitude connected to my writing. Long days in front of the computer, alone, being contemplative does horrible things to a psyche. At least to my psyche. I crave companionship and conversation. But it is also very romantic. And there is nothing like a great day of writing to make you feel like you've had a very rewarding chat with the ultimate conversationalist.

Anyway, I digress...the History Boys quotation... Jonathan Franzen speaks my feelings exactly. I know I was hard on his 27th City but this work of collected essays is fantastic. Truly fantastic. The type of fantastic that means I am dreading coming to the last essay...

In particular, when I read his generalizations about readers I felt he had very clearly grown up with me and was actually featuring me in his essay. He wrestles with the idea that reading is a bit of a socially isolated experience but not one necessarily dependent on social isolation.

Pride compels me, here, to draw a distinction between young fiction readers and young nerds. The classic nerd, who finds a home in facts or technology or numbers, is marked not by a displaced sociability but by an antisociability. Reading does resemble more nerdy pursuits in that it's a habit that both feeds on a sense of isolation and aggravates it. Simply being a "social isolate" as a child does not, however, doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult. In fact, it can make you hypersocial. It's just that at some point you'll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be along and do some reading--to reconnect to that community.

Arguably, I'm a bit of a nerd as well...but I prefer to think of myself as hypersocial who craves alone time.

And speaking of writing as a profession....phew....

Writers and readers have always been prone to this estrangement. Communion with the virtual community of print requires solitude, after all. But the estrangement becomes much more profound, urgent, and dangerous when that virtual community is no longer densely populated and heavily trafficked; when the saving continuity of literature itself is under electronic and academic assault; when your alienation become generic rather than individual, and the business pages seem to report on the world's conspiracy to grandfather not only you but all your kind, and prince of silence seems no longer to be obscurity but outright oblivion.

There are so many great things about this work...his description of his father in the first essay (which may very well be my favorite thing that Franzen has ever written), his critique of our political world and his complete honesty about his limitations and weaknesses as a husband, writer and citizen. But I want you to read it for yourself and pick out the good parts. The parts at when you feel Franzen taking your hand.

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Blogger Cagney Gentry said...

Do you write to music? I can not read if music is playing, I start reading to the rhythm. But, when it comes to writing I thrive when I am overwhelmed with sound. I try to choose a music genre that is fitting for what I am writing, not so hard if writing fiction, a little harder to find appropriate music for academic writing I suppose. But, I was just curious as to your preferences.

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