Friday, April 04, 2014

`One Reads and Reads and Reads'

A young man seated on a concrete bench was reading a fat, orange-covered book in his lap. He had the vulnerable look of a reader concentrating, and probably wasn’t feeling the sunlight or the breeze. When I see people reading in public – a book, I mean, not an electronic device, newspaper or magazine – I want to ask them what they are reading, but usually don’t for fear of disturbing them. It would feel like interrupting a prayer or a private conversation. The young man’s bench was across the road from my building. I seldom see students reading books, even in the library. Digital reading has largely replaced reading on paper, at least on campus, though the engineers I work with still cover their white boards with diagrams, equations and even words. 

On my way back from the library he was still on his bench, still reading, seemingly frozen, and curiosity got the better of me.  The book that so absorbed him was one I had never heard of -- The Kills (Picador, 2103), an omnibus edition of four novels by Richard House. “Sort of a thriller,” he said, “but more complicated than that.” He had been so absorbed in the story that he stood, stretched and moaned at his stiffness. “I got kind of lost in it,” the junior in chemical engineering said. I was further impressed with him reading a 1,024-page novel when, later, I learned the digital edition comes with “a series of short films embedded on the page, often with text overlaid, as well as animations and audio clips.” He eschewed the electronic doodads for the old-fashioned pleasures of print-based narrative. “This is reading for fun,” he said. “We have to do a lot of heavy reading, technical stuff. I don’t exactly call [The Kills] escape reading. It’s serious and you have to remember a lot of stuff, but that’s fun too.” 

Reading David Yezzi’s latest essay in The New Criterion, “Sound and Sensibility,” which comes with an epigraph from “The Audible Reading of Poetry,” sent me back to the Yvor Winters collection the passage comes from, The Function of Criticism (1957). The last of the volume’s five essays is “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” which includes an evaluation of C.S. Lewis literary history volume of the same title (1954). Here’s the way Winters concludes the essay: 

“As to scholarship and criticism, one has to look for it wherever it happens to lie concealed. One tracks it down year by year, by employing the latest bibliographical methods. Or else one reads and reads and reads, and does one’s best to remember. It is a messy business, any way one takes it; but it is also fascinating.” 

I like the breathless, teenage quality of “one reads and reads and reads.”

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