Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lessons on Reading


As a raging bookaholic, I’m constantly looking for the next book to add to my shelf. There are so many options. I want to read more; I want to read it all. As a result, I’m certain that I miss some of what is there. I often skim the surface instead of dive down deep. My analytical skills suffer. I miss the subtleties, the nuances, the hidden themes and allusions.

It’s poignant, then, that I just started Jonathan Raban’s essay collection—his diary of America—and he begins it with these words on reading:

The first lesson Empson taught was to drastically slow down; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think… A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming speed bumps: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next—and often one clause and the next—to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does… Empson illustrated his arguments by sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye, and so forth… Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a daring fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experience eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson…was concerned.

Beneath the clean line of type on the page lay the muddy depths of the living and changing language, a world of stubborn historic associations, swarming puns, suggestive likenesses and connections, meanings that were in a continuous process of education and decay, sometimes enriching the word in print, but as often subverting it…

Empson’s preternaturally sensitive ear and eye for the deep-water workings of the language enabled him to share with his readers a myriad subtleties, shades of meaning, richness, in lines they might otherwise have skated over, in ignorance of this buried treasure…

—From Driving Home: An American Journey, Jonathan Raban, pgs. 7-8

Do you meticulously savor the books you read or fly through them and move on to the next?

1 comment:

Aarti said…

Lovely. Thank you.