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How to Read

fillingstation said something about there being a need for courses on creative reading to complement this explosion of courses for creative writing.

What is reading? It can be blinders. There’s a danger in reading what’s safe, what you already like. Frances Woolley called it Literary You-genics.

It’s a danger embedded in being courted by customized smart filters. Google suggests things along the line of what you already found. Amazon suggests similar books. Facebook for its potential to talk to anyone in the world, creates nodes of related people and similar aesthetics. The chance of being surrounded by dulling sycophants goes up.

It isn’t a purely online thing. Books themselves suggest books. People are chains of connections of who they know and where they know it from. It is connected up inside a system that supports itself and meshes together. How to step outside that one universe of knowing of that time, place, class, education, experiences, etc. How to map other nodes to navigate to to avoid the pitfalls of being surrounded by unquestioning agreement on givens?

We’re always contained in a bubble of what we already know. Are we trying to direct the bubble? How to get traction in a bubble? Break it and you’re in freefall before a nasty thump.

I’m reminded of being in an elevator where two people were chatting in English and a fourth person boarded. One of the English-speakers greeted the new person in French. There was a gasp. And the three began speaking in French. The initial two had always spoken English and neither knew the other was Francophone so presumed each other English. Their bubble just merged and floated larger with the addition of one randomly entered data point in the form of a person. A simple exchange of word and linguistic worlds shifted. They all became French-speakers to one another instead of English-speakers by identity.

How do we identify what or who we will want to know?

I remember a guest author speaking to our guild. She preambled about how we all enter a bookstore and go to the section we like and turn to the first line of the first page of a known author. Most people (mercifully to my sensibility) in the room shook their heads or looked baffled. I too tend to go to sections that aren’t my area (like music, knitting, economics, business, magazine on things I know nothing about like dirt bikes or something in a language I don’t read). To check out a new book I always open a random page. If a phrase mid-book is weak, that’s the point to look for the rot of the apple basket, not the stem. From the looks on the faces of the fellow writers, I wasn’t alone.

What is reading? It may be self-brain-washing, trying to convince or prop ideas. If we liked the same ideas the same way we’d all just spend our lives on one mantra, repeating that to ourselves and each other. We want some new information but want information we can accommodate with what we take as true, or relevant, or in some radical or rakish angle to one of these. It should threaten or comfort.

Reading is an act of trust. Reading is willingly or unwillingly following the thread of her or his thoughts. Reading may be a quiet rustle nearby or an outright wrestle with the ideas of the communication.

I’m haunted by the tension between “When two people entirely agree, one of the people is superfluous” and the need for symmetrical seeking of common ground as a basis for respect.

It can’t be resistance and novelty and growth all the time. Just as the mind needs rest and the body needs healing time, the perceptions need times where they map to another’s perceptions, unchallenged. Accord and record matching.

When one comes to a writer who thinks compatibly for our understanding, who one has met the words of before, one may want to settle in like a child before a bedtime story, assured that one doesn’t have to waste neurons deciding if one will like it or not, resist it or not. One level of filter is passed.

Perhaps the writer, like a musician switching from pop to easy listening or classical, won’t provide the same product, the same experience. Maybe the writer has changed in life experience and/or aesthetic and can’t produce a comparable sort of brain fodder.

Still one can sample new writing by a stranger or new writing by someone familiar and quickly decide if there’s resonance/comprehension mixed with curiosity enough to proceed. The piece of writing shares enough of a pattern with the reader’s mind so that there isn’t over-explaining and being pedantic to what is know, isn’t necessitating too large of leaps so that its discouraging or undoable, isn’t offending too much to bear, isn’t too delicate to tolerate, and is offering something with the right sweet ratio of new enough and familiar enough to satisfy.

With one writer I may cozy up to the page because I like the cadence, enjoy the type of story, or like the proportion of unsettledness and the freedom from a need for story and Meaning. But then, in both cases, the writing is about the experience of the reader, and the relationship to trust and desire, not about the story itself.

In part the ability to read is the ability to listen, suspending judgement while keeping alert and critically observing without criticizing so that you can’t hear. It may be a whitewater rush on the sounds, being swept. (I’m personally poor at whitewater and stream floating. I want to plan and paddle and analyze currents and decline some areas of river and, in short, control.)

To read you need to turn yourself down so that “how you feel” (interested, bored, whatever reactivity) doesn’t matter. The process is an act of paying attention to out there, not continuously expressing self thru forming opinions, self-monitoring, micro-managing your reactivities.

Can you hear others or only yourself with the volume on your own mic turned up higher than the mic from what is outside yourself? Does outside yourself and inside yourself need to reconcile and agree or reconcile and have positions towards each other?

To read in a community is a different act than to read for self-gratification. When we read for what will spark us, what will engage or resonate with us, it is a selfish act that we pretend is about Art on a large scale. When we read to communicate, receive communications, we see the writing as an extension of the person. If one is to care for the person, one is seeking the meaning of the writing to the writer, stepping into those shoes as a compassionate act. The dynamic of “quality” writing isn’t pertinent with the same weight. Instead of skill of art, it is in a context of difficulty or ease among all the skills of living. The writing is evaluated in its own terms, relative to its own progression rather than the reader’s.

How to read is not about the act, or about the subject read, or the subject doing the reading but the purpose of the reading. What is the goal? There isn’t one good way to read. Well, there is. Analyze the hell out of it. Do flow charts and graphs and paper models if possible. Retort it and making a flambé torte in its honour at the living room canonization ceremony. But one can hardly do that every day. 😉

What is reading? Communication. It looks like one way communication but it is two-way. It isn’t a passively absorbing but a critica-thinking perception of perceptions to the degree that is warranted and practical and useful for a purpose.

How to communicate? Communication is based on having enough overlap in worldview or word-view that you can understand enough to grasp something of what is coming across. It is extending a perception to share. It is extending oneself towards that perception, in first act, to see what it is before the observer effect kicks in.

Part of the weakness of interpreting a poem relatively is that with that model (where a poem’s Meaning Is In the Eye of the Beholder) what is discarded and disregarded is all the effort, skill, intent of the writer. It becomes an exercise in flattering the reader and flattening the writer, rather than understanding the act as two-way parity. Reading becomes an exercise in projection rather than perception.

In a text, maybe the speaker is convinced. Maybe not. Maybe the reader comes in as pre-converted choir, or the stoic endurer of the differences in opinion. To read one may come to speculate on the writers relationship to the text and not just create a relationship of reader to the text. It is a community matrix of relationships, even if it happens at skim-speed.

Maybe as a result of reading there is ash in the mouth, or maybe there are embers bitten between the teeth, sparking until all we readers are dragons who will strike fear into any sword-bearer.

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