Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Slow reading

I remember when I was young my mother and I were amazed by the amount of books my father used to read. He was completely omnivorous in reading, novels, poetry, biographies, travel books. For me and my mother reading was - still is for me - a substantial part of work. Reading for pleasure is therefore something reserved at best for holidays, provided that there aren't piles of books that must be read during the holidays, as the case is when you are a reviewer or on a book jury. Reading for work oftentimes implies reading fast, in many cases stating from the first page that the book is poorly written, boring and uninspiring, but still has to be read. Sometimes I see a book and know that I have read it, but have no memory of it. On the other hand, I have discovered that I have forgotten essential details in books I thought I remembered well, so I don't trust my memory and always re-read books before I write about them or teach them, even though I have read them ten times before.

Perhaps I am a snob, but I cannot read trash even when I am very tired. Not even when I am on a plane. Trash makes me irritated. (Trash is a matter of definition of course).

So what do I read when I read for pleasure? Looking back at the year that is almost over, I realize that I have re-read three masterpieces that all require slow reading. Books that you do not read for the plot, but for the pleasure of the language, the sound of words, the elegance of phrasing. Three books similar in that nothing happens in them. Three books that I read when I was young and of course didn't understand or appreciate then. The Magic Mountain. Don Quixote. Moby Dick. Yes, it took me a whole year to read three books, while parallel to them I swallowed dozens upon dozens of children's books for work, and also a good number of airplane books of good quality, to kill the time, and naturally a good deal of professional literature. Yet I think it is the first time I have consistently chosen, one after another, these calm, plotless books in which you savour words, almost reading aloud, lingering on paragraphs; I even looked up some words in a dictionary.

On closer consideration, I believe this slow reading is part of my new lifestyle that includes papermaking, pottery and dollhouses. I allow myself the luxury of reading the way I listen to music. You cannot speed up music without distorting it. We shouldn't speed up reading when we read for pleasure. Also, you can hear favorite music over and over again. You can finish Moby Dick and start again and enjoy it just as much. I did not know this simple fact when I was young.

As a professional literary critic I suddenly find it hard to articulate my response. I am right now grading students' papers including their "self-portrait as a reader". In the beginning of the term I found the topic a bit ridiculous. After weeks of supervision, I realize how difficult it is - if you do it critically. Can I, to my own satisfaction, write a self-portrait of myself as a reader in 2008? Have the three novels been formative for me? Was the time right for choosing them? What have I got out of them? Is it necessary to get something out of your reading?

Fortunately, there are so many books out there. I have already started on the next slow read, Remembrance of Things Past.

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