Monday, February 20, 2012

`Dare I Say It, Wisdom'

“The notion of reading as a hobby to one for whom it is very nearly a way of life is comically absurd.”

In fact, one reads life and lives books. To call this an intersection is misleading. For dedicated readers, a more accurate spatial analogy might be the sort of transparencies one sees in anatomy textbooks – muscles, bones, circulatory system – one after another overlaid on the outline of the human form. Only in the abstract can each system be looked at in isolation. In aggregate, they, like all the books we’ve ever read, whether fondly remembered or long forgotten, form an unfathomable whole.

“Anyone—and I exclude only Ludwig Wittgenstein from this proposition—who reads a sentence has to make the following little check on it: 1. Is it clear? 2. Is it (grammatically, semantically, logically) correct? 3. Is it interesting? 4. Is it true? 5. Is it (charming bonus) beautiful? And then, if he or she is a writer, three further questions arise: 1. How was it made? 2. Could it be improved? And 3. What, for my own writing, can I steal from it?”

Serious readers, like serious writers, are serious editors. If, while reading something good, a sentence, phrase or word sounds inappropriate, like a wrong note in music – a “clam,” in jazz parlance – I ask: Am I missing something? Is the failure mine or the writer’s? I reread the passage. If the failure is mine, I make a silent apology; if the writer’s, a note. Either way, I learn something as reader and writer. A culinary analogy is helpful: Too much salt? Too little? Overcooked? Underdone? Try again.

“Along with the love of style, I read in the hope of laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness, and dare I say it, wisdom; I read, finally, hoping to get a little smarter about the world.”

For “read” substitute “live.” Does the sentence still make sense? Does it jibe with your experience? For this reader/writer/editor, that is a perfect sentence.

[The passages quoted above are drawn from “The Pleasures of Reading,” an essay by Joseph Epstein collected in Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999.]

No comments: