Thursday 7 November 2013

The obedience of reading

The other day I was reading Helen Vendler's book on the poetry of George Herbert. It is the product of a powerfully lucid mind. The author opens up each poem with all the delicacy and precision of a clockmaker, exposing the gears inside and showing how each poem works, why the best ones are so good, and how the weaker ones have malfunctioned. It is a consummate piece of literary criticism, absolutely clinical, discriminating, loving, analytical.

I finished the book. I put it down. My heart was full because the book had been so good. I looked out the window from my reading chair and thought about Helen Vendler and the way she reads poems. I got up to make a cup of tea. The dog followed me into the kitchen. He looked pretty halfhearted about it because he is always lazy during the day when the children are at school. A house without children is like a yard without a bone, that's how he sees it. I felt sorry for him, the self-pitying way he watched me boil the kettle, so I rewarded him for his sadness with a bit of dried meat from the cupboard.

I got my tea and went back to the chair and opened the next book. It was about the institution of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome, written by somebody named Joseph Vogt. While the dog went back to sleep beside my feet I studied the picture on the cover and opened the book at random to sample a sentence and inspect the typeface. I rummaged through the index. I examined the table of contents. I consulted the bibliography. I loved the way Helen Vendler had described George Herbert's "native delight in neatness." I thought I should write the phrase down somewhere so I wouldn't forget it. I opened Joseph Vogt's book to the first page and began reading. I read the first page, then the second. By the third page I was beginning to find something vaguely unsettling about this book. Something did not seem right. There was a pebble in the shoe somewhere, but I did not stop to wonder what it was. I kept reading, and half way down the fourth page the question formed itself clearly in my mind: But which one of Herbert's poems is he talking about?

That was when I understood the problem. My eyes had been reading the words on the page, but my mind was still lodged in Helen Vendler's book. I had not, in fact, understood a single word that I had read, for I had unknowingly brought Helen Vendler with me to the other book and was still expecting to find George Herbert under every stone. My eyes were with Joseph Vogt but my mind was aligned with Helen Vendler. As soon as I became aware of the problem I looked out the window and took a second to adjust my mind, calibrating it to the new themes of slavery, ancient Greece, ancient Rome. Then I turned back to the first page and started again. This time I understood what I was reading; it was a good book; I no longer thought of George Herbert and was therefore able to enjoy learning about Greece and Rome.

Anyone who reads books as a way of life will be familiar with this experience, and with the way one's mind requires calibration to different authors and different kinds of books. Even casual distractions require small mental adjustments; this happens whenever you get to the end of a paragraph only to discover that the whole time you were thinking of sex or shopping. But more interesting and more subtle is the way books can interact with one another so that, when putting down one book and taking up another, the book you are reading is muted by a sort of residual presence of another book, an echo of another voice.

The act of calibrating one's mind to the specific nature of a book is, I believe, one of the chief pleasures of reading. It is indeed a pleasure unique to reading, exquisitely dissimilar from the pleasures of other arts like cinema and music. The reading life is a life regulated by this practice of precise internal calibration to the books one loves. The best books are the ones that have to teach us how to read them, how to adapt our expectations to what is present in them. It is why so many great books are so long. Moby-Dick has to be as long as it is; if it were any shorter, our first reading would not allow us time to begin to learn how to read it.

This internal alignment might be described as the obedience of reading: the capacity to yield ourselves to another, to suspend our agendas to make room for something different from ourselves. We experience the pleasure of reading to the degree that we are spiritually capable of such obedience. In a strange way, it is this obedience itself that produces pleasure. That is why books that demand very little adjustment on the part of the reader – a book, let us say, in which everything is predictable from the start – also offer comparatively few pleasures. It is the book that demands a more drastic adjustment of the self that also rewards the reader with greater (in some cases life-changing) pleasures.

And this is why learning to read well requires time and effort. It requires a willingness to go back to the first page and start again – not because reading is hard work but because it is hard-won pleasure. There are books that yield up their peculiar pleasures only after many re-readings. In some instances, years of study may be required before one learns how to enjoy a book. But even the most difficult book is read ultimately in trust that the reward, however delayed, will amply compensate for the trouble it took to obtain it. I have read The Tempest fifteen times in the same year – not because I was addicted to its difficulty for its own sake, but because I found the book's elusive promise of joy so compelling, and because with all my heart I trusted that the book would keep its promise. I read it fifteen times to learn how to align myself with it, how to become obedient to its peculiar magic. I read it fifteen times because I wanted to know how to read it.

I have called this internal work the obedience of reading. But really that is misleading. It will be more accurate if we simply agree to call it love. The art of reading is an art of love. It is a way of going outside myself to discover the strange country of another heart and mind. Aligning myself to the customs of that country is not an onerous burden. It is something more like courtesy, a recognition that there are persons other than myself whose voices are worth hearing and whose hearts are worth knowing.

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