March 6th, 2015
I have never been one to read in the car. Planes are okay (but I won’t be that asshole who leaves his light on during the red-eye); buses are a wash (that asshole is perpetually across the aisle and a few rows down, piping trap beats through his iPhone) –
I can’t read novels before bed because I’d rather sleep. I don’t read anything right after work because I can’t stay awake. I can’t read poetry at my desk because it feels…off, the fluorescent lights, the children barging in, my adorable salad composed in a sectioned tupperware, staring me down….
An old professor of mine, Greg Orr, used the term “carnivorous reading” as we talked about how we acknowledge our influences as writers. What he meant was, “we [writers] only read what we can use.”
Greg, a famously cryptic character, made a lot of sense to me then. In recent months his words have prompted me to rethink and revise my reading habits. I wanted to share some of them not because I know they work – after all, not everyone’s a writer and is able to use what they read in any tangible way – but because they’ve helped me enjoy new angles of reading.
Read a lot of things at once.
For some reason I still can’t watch more than one HBO series simultaneously, yet I’ve discovered the value of maintaining a diverse cache of texts. Most people are choosy about what they read. For the longest time I avoided short fiction: something about visiting characters and their lives in such brief windows intimidated me. Now I know that the tidy, clever resolutions of short fiction make for the best bedtime reading, a habit I’ve always struggled with. Diversifying has manifold benefits: my full mattress has no accompanying boxspring, frame, or nightstand, so the wall of books keeps my wallet, keys, glasses, phone, and stupid mouthguard I wear at night off the dirty carpet in style!
It’s hard to dive into a Thomas Pynchon novel on your lunch break: if you keep some good short form nonfiction handy – hiking books, craft essays, David Sedaris’ anecdotes or the pithy sports writing of Joe Posnanski – you’ll avoid reading awful internet content that will more than likely just make you upset. Return regularly to the same fun text in whatever pockets your workweek allows. Your days will go so much smoother: that happens when you look forward to things.
Read below your level.
Most major newspapers are written at a sixth-grade reading level. Sonorous language doesn’t make good journalism: it’s all about content. Trendy publications like VICE or the A/V Club have their flourishes, sure, but most people don’t click beyond the snappy headline and thumbnail. And that one click is enough.
Why, then, do advanced readers seem to always seek out the next most dizzyingly complex novel they can find after slogging through Infinite Jest? Like any classic Simpsons episode, the books you adored growing up have only doubled in meaning. I found this clip on YouTube so it’s thus my best example: the image of Homer’s jiggly little legs put me on the floor with laughter as a kid. I didn’t notice the more subtle “Ironic Punishment Division” sight gag until just now.
Adults write the books that kids read, books that feature young protagonists just discovering the world and its workings. Imagine the depths of irony built into those depictions, and the disservice we’re doing to their creators by not going back to appreciate the perceived naïveté of youth. If you’re the kind of person who keeps a copy of Catcher in the Rye in the mesh pockets of his Saturn, don’t bother.
Is this classic scene from Dead Poets Society an ironic send-up of youthful romanticism, or just really, really lame? See also American Beauty Plastic Bag Scene.
Pick up a Sport.
Yeah going for a run is good cardio, but to me that’s not enough. Juggling a soccer ball, shooting a free throw, smacking a tennis ball against your garage door – these are acts of devotion. Reading is devotional in much the same way: intense concentration is necessary; practice, time. The I and thou of reader and text, text and life, man and ball, man-on-man. Reading is not a passive activity. If you can be an active reader without some kind of sacred, physical training ground, that’s great. But if you’re nodding off more than you should be, give sports a shot. You might just score
It took me a few years to get in the habit of keeping my Dictionary app open while I read. It took me much longer to figure out that I still don’t know what parsimony means.
Most of us were taught that writing things down helps us remember. That’s never not been true. Writing can be jotting down tough words or catchy lines, or transcribing entire poems. I highly recommend the latter. Typing in the rhythms of a skilled writer makes you follow their pace, something we often forego as we read (we all know the tedium of a huge, Rabelaisian litany of adjectives).
Also, only “great” poems make it on the web. I’ve returned far too many good poems to the library without taking ten minutes to write them out and keep them near. Forever. Which brings up another good point: if you don’t have a library card, get a library card, what’s wrong with you it’s free.
This is new for me. Just this past week I’ve begun a daily routine of translating Roberto Bolaño prose poems. With my bilingual edition I cover up the English, write out the poems in the original español (they are only a few sentences in length, usually), underline anything I don’t understand in red pencil, attempt to translate, uncover the English and copy, then pull out my app to clarify any misconceptions.
The process is fun but requires patience and discipline, and like shopping in the bulk section at WinCo, comes with many unexpected surprises. For example, this line:
el dinero, a cuentagotas, me alcanzaría para cuatro meses.
Cuentagotas literally translates to a medicine dropper or a turkey baster; the translator sagely goes with “my money, really stretching it, would last me four months.” Figurative language, in translation, reveals just how much meaning could be lost without care, as well as the fundamental playfulness of language. Translation slows language down, and every word becomes precious, every sound. Every pronoun.
How would you translate a phrase like “slapstick chapstick”? The writer in me is excited by the possibilities, while the reader is content with the exercise.
Don’t read what you don’t like.
Instead, read what you can’t do.
If it takes you three weeks to get to page 100 because the narrator is a prick, just set it aside. If an old, white author’s tacky depiction of a Latina waitress is off-putting, figure out why, then set it aside.
Again, there are a lot of books that hit the shelves…
“An Omnivorous Listener”
That’s how the late Mike Kelley was described in his obit in the New York Times. I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful thing to say about someone.
Being a good listener is almost trite at this point. Almost an insult. To me a good listener is a good talker – a good conversationalist – and a good reader. You know it when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t read, or who only reads trash. How unpleasant. Reading is thinking. Thus, all reading is usable, carnivorous.
Use it well.