How to Read Books

I read a book as Cézanne painted an apple: a stroke here, a stroke there until the apple emerges as if from nowhere.

Everything is something to read — books, glances, the sky, that weird red bump on my calf, brined pork chops, algorithms, incantations, "The Wire," an abrupt end to a text, that funky smell, the form of blogs, management structures, The Dirty Projectors, grammar. Which is to say, nothing is self-evident. Of course, most readings are not readings at all: we just accept the terms given to us, assuming that such is the way of things. To wit, romantic coupling: it's just what we do. Sure, some question it, reading the implicit existential-political ideology. But most of us do not. So we date and assume a linear trajectory and marry, or don't, and find happiness or don't.

That's not necessarily a criticism. It's absurd to read everything anew. It would be exhausting not to mention maddening to read everything anew. With some things, we gladly succumb to the common reading provided. Other things, we engage, question, find different takes on it. In many ways, these decisions are what define us and our social cliques: we tend towards those who proffer different readings of the things we do. For instance, very few people close to me have had real jobs in which they go to an office every day. Most of them, including my parents and siblings, have found other ways to operate within the economy.

So, yes, my definition of reading extends to realms other than words. To read something is to engage it, to come at it this way and that, to fold it into some kind of shape.

But how are we to read? Unfortunately, we tend to define literacy as the ability to articulate the sounds letters make when strung together. That may or may not be important but, in any case, it's not what I'm talking about here.

Let's begin with that seemingly known quantity, a book. How does one go about reading a book? Well, a book has a structure that encourages us to read it a certain way. Usually, it goes in one direction: begin with the preface and move continuously through the pages which, like bread crumbs, seem to offer the way: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5....

But I don't really like being told what to do. And after reading a lot of books and having made sense of many of them in ways that have brought me enormous, resonant pleasure, I've found that reading a book according to the numbers provided is rarely rewarding. I recently bought Yoko Ono's Grapefruit for my sweetie, it being her birthday and all, and reading it together in bed we noted that it has no page numbers. "This is the greatest book I've ever burned," writes John Lennon in the introduction.

This is certainly true of philosophy books. Sure, an argument might build — Leibniz's Monadology really wants to be read in order, its 90 propositions building and involuting and folding in complex ways. But, still, read it in any order you like. 

For me, reading a book is akin to the way Cézanne would paint. Cézanne didn't begin with the outline and then fill in the middle. No, he'd put a stroke here, a stroke there until the apple — pear, landscape — emerged. For Cézanne, there was no center or external structure. An apple hangs together according to obscure and beautiful and immanent terms of cohesion. 

So when I pick up a book — any book — I flip around until I find something that grabs my attention. And then I dig in — until my attention wanders. Then I flip around again. I approach the book as Cézanne approaches the canvas, building the book from the inside out one stroke at a time.

In school, students are handed books as if that book is a given as great. But I always tried to teach my students to ask: Why this book? What does it want from me? What do I make of such requests? The book was never on a pedestal; our job is not to confirm its greatness. We should come to anything as participants, not as sycophants. 

And yet it's rarely interesting to spend time saying why a book stinks. It's as uninteresting as saying why a book is great. Stinks, great: who cares? I always taught my students that to read a text is to convey what it's up to, what it wants from the world, how it operates. That thumbs up or thumbs down is soul killing. Bring that text to life in all its beauty or ugliness or whatever it offers — but bring it to life!

Whenever I pick up a book, I hold it in my hand, feeling for the weight. Who wants to hold a book that's too heavy or too light? Well, sometimes, maybe. But I'm looking for that book that feels good in my hands. I want the font to be right, too. I'm not a young man, anymore. I need that font to be a certain size. It's fine if they want to publish at 10 point but then you're telling me you don't want anyone over a certain age to read it. Which I get! But I'm not reading you.

I then flip here and there looking for a foothold, a way in, something that might interest me, take me up, something that pops from the fray. If I don't find it, I put the book down. If I do, I keep going, flipping forwards and backwards until an image of the book takes shape — Cézanne's apple coming into being as if from nowhere. 

Such is the endless miracle of reading: something new comes into being, as if from nowhere, and yet it's right here, right there: a resurrection. A repetition. Lazarus. 

All the while, you need to ask yourself: What does this book want from me? Where is this book going? Where can it go, perhaps despite itself? The author's intention is irrelevant — after all, our intention is often belied by forces we're not even aware of. Just because an author says she intended to do something doesn't make it so. (Ask Shrodinger about his cat. Or Freud about the status of repression.)  If only life were like that! But no: we live and die by what we do, not what we intend. Life is for the living, not for the intended.

My point is this: the approach to the book is half the task. You need to feel its equal as we are all just so much stuff. A planet, a poem a person: it's all made of the same stuff. And yet the important thing to realize is that this is not to belittle the thing. On the contrary, this is the only way to actually respect a book (yes, I split infinitives because that's an arbitrary grammatical rule). To pray to it is the same as to damn in: it's to assume it has a power it never had. Our job as readers is to respect it and ask: What are you up to? How can I help? I call this generosity.


Some Practical Suggestions for Teaching Creative Thinking

School, for the most part, teaches students how to go with the beat. I want to suggest that there is more pedagogic efficacy in teaching them to go against the beat.

So much of schooling is focused on finding the right answer. Such is the very structure of multiple choice exams, those very tests we use to asses who gets into college and who doesn't. Perhaps knowing things serves a function. Certainly at times knowing the right answer comes in handy — when assessing the trajectory of a missile, for instance, or the weight bearing limits of a plinth. Knowing some good words is handy, too, not to mention existentially useful — a good word can steer a thought.

But obviously focusing on the knowing of things is limited and, in the age of the internet, redundant. What the internet cannot teach is the how — how to think critically and creatively. Life is unpredictable. Thinking creatively allows one to make sense of new situations as they arise. But even more importantly, life is filled with the banal, the idiotic, and the ideological passing itself as true. The ability to think creatively allows one to infuse the everyday humdrum with vitality. And learning to think critically allows one to reveal the power and violence that permeates so much of life — from school to politics to romance to the media. 

How do we teach such things?

Art is a cornerstone of creative, critical thinking.  To teach art is not to teach how to stay within the lines or to replicate the real. Good job! It looks just like that mug! No, the pedagogic function of art is to teach decision making when there is no measuring stick, no right answer — which is the challenge of everyday life! The questions of art demand a student finding a position when there is no right answer but something has to be done anyway. Why do you use this or that line? Use this or that color? Frame your picture like that? And, perhaps most profoundly, how do you know when it's done? These are questions without pre-determined answers. But they are not without criteria of assessment all together. This is what makes a good art teacher: he knows how to discuss, assess, and critique a student's decisions without recourse to a teacher's edition text book.

What a skill! What could be more useful in life than teaching a 14 year old how to make sense of what she's done when there is no right answer? Isn't this the challenge put before us all on a daily basis? How do you know what to say to co-workers and friends, to brothers and sisters, to a homeless man panhandling, to cops? How do we know when it's time to leave a party, a conversation, a situation? All of these are decisions we have to make without certainty. What trains us to make these kinds of decisions? Does knowing which veins lead to or from the heart do the trick? Or is art, in fact, the only subject we teach that instructs in the way of making decisions when there is no recourse to Wikipedia?

But there are more approaches to creative and critical thinking than art pedagogy. Here are some ideas — a few I've done for myself, a few with students.

Take a sign, any sign. And read it differently that its obvious intention. To wit: "End Road Work" as a political banner. "Chicken Hamburger Milkshakes" as a repulsive offering; "Rough Road" as an existential declaration of fact; "Speed Humps" as a sentence — speed the subject, humps the verb. Yeah, sure, this may not be so funny but it's a great exercise that asks you a) to recognize that much of what seems self-evident is a construct that relies on social agreement; and b) to find alternate meanings within one sign.

Color walks: William Burroughs would do this. Walk outside. Now pick a color. Now go wherever that color is. That is, don't be lead by destination or goal nor by habit. Let your world be redistributed by the arbitrary picking of a color. Suddenly, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

You can extend this exercise to other media. For instance, choose a book and only follow one character or one part of speech or change the order of pages — going against the beat, as it were. The lesson? That there are other ways to distribute the world.

This is a variation on the color walk that occurred to me the other day: Write about one of the so-called great books — say, The Aeneid— without mentioning the battles or the Roman state. When I was a TA in grad school, the professor had me teach it; I was bored so I followed one figure through the book — gossip. I never mentioned anything else; I just tried to define what gossip meant within the terms of the book. My argument: gossip, for Virgil, is not a matter of truth or lies but of circumstance and source. The wrong person saying a true thing at the wrong time becomes gossip. The professor was not pleased. The point: a book is inherently multiple. Purposefully ignore all the things about it you're supposed to know and follow a compelling thread that catches your attention.

For an assignment in an MFA seminar I taught at SFAI, we chose three artists in three different media — Sarah Sze, Andreas Gursky, and Paul Kos. For the students' final assignment, each had to create something in the style of their assigned artist but using a different medium. This forces the question of what a style even is — is it in the subject matter? The affect? The colors? All or none of the above?

This assignment translates well to the written word — write a philosophical essay in the style of Allen Ginsberg; write a recipe in the style of Nabokov; write instructions for building a bird house in the style of Melville.

In another SFAI grad seminar I co-taught with the brilliant artist, Marc Lafia, we had every student in the class create a performance, an installation, and an object using nothing but the reader we'd created for the course, filled with photocopied articles. The point: your medium doesn't matter; nor do materials. Having constraints forces creativity.

Constraints are great as they force a reflection on the process of creation. You can create different constraints for each assignment: Give an argument about Moby Dick in one tweet; now in one page; now in five pages. You can add all kinds of constraints. In La Disparition (translated as A Void), Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without the letter "e"; the English translation follows suit (a humbling task).

The Oulipo school thrived on such constraints. in Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau relates an incredibly banal story of an eventless event on a bus; he then proceeds to tell the same tale, whatever that means, 99 different ways. There are many variations on this exercise you could assign. I had my students write the 100th style, telling Queneau's tale in a different manner. Or students could tell the same anecdote x number of ways. This, again, teaches them about expression, about form, and about the multiplicity and plasticity of this world. What better goal is there than that?

As for teaching subjects other than art and literature, here's an easy one: whatever book you're using as your source of information, turn the students' attention to that book! If it's a text book, ask why the authors chose this breakdown of the material and have the students write their own outline for a textbook on the subject.

In college, I had to take a science class and chose physical anthropology; while the subject might or might not be interesting, this class was not — the test asked if lemurs were diurnal or nocturnal! So I flipped over the exam and wrote a critique of the text book. I got a C. But asking students to offer a different organization of the textbook is an incredible assignment that a) teaches the material; and b) at the same time, drawing attention to the very ways we make sense of the material. Oh, now I kind of want to teach physical anthropology just to give this assignment.

I gave a similar assignment in another grad seminar a SFAI: the students had to create their own art movement — write a manifesto or declaration and group artists who belonged in that movement. Again, this shows that movements are constructed, not given; and then fosters the creativity in such creation, forging all kinds of new modes of thinking, new connections between otherwise unrelated artists. This is the fundamental plasticity of the world, the territory in which creative minds thrive.

I'm thinking this should be an open source document in which we all keep adding assignments and ways to teach critical, creative thinking.


A Discourse that Suits Us

What you don't see is the VI Lenin t-shirt. We're all seeking a discourse that suits us.

When I was younger, I could be preachy. I believed in a certain sense of the social good and expressed it loudly, often, and aggressively. I was president of my high school student union both my junior and senior year. My platform was student power; I believed the school should be run by students. In my freshman year of college, I founded an organization called STAND, STudents Against Nuclear Destruction (we didn't have a lot of opposition; nor did we have many members). One time, Abby Hoffman visited campus to rally students to help stop PECO from building some water pump to cool their nuclear reactor. When Mr. Hoffman asked what this student group should be called, I suggested, STOP — STudents Opposed to the Pump. I had a knack for acronyms albeit within a very limited range.

When I look back at this time, two things come to mind. One, I was so sure that the things I believed were right that I found it literally insane that anyone could think otherwise. Which is so, well, icky it makes me cringe. That's the very definition of bigotry and, alas, one of the defining traits of the liberal culture in which I was indoctrinated — a smug sanctimony built on a foundation of intolerance which is all the worse for its claims to the contrary.

And two, when I picture myself back then, I see a certain decadence, a sensual pleasure. I liked being cloaked in the affect of my words. I liked holding forth in front of crowds or in a conversation.  I liked the license it gave me to speak emphatically. I could swear, get heated, jump up and down. When I really think about it, my passion was not for the ideas I was espousing but for the position this espousal afforded me. I called myself a communist, had a poster of Karl Marx and a Che t-shirt — this was 1985, before Che was chic — but had never read either (well, I read "The Communist Manifesto" in my communist teacher's class, a great detail about my high school). No, it wasn't the ideas per se that interested me. I wore my Karl Marx because I liked the way it felt. It gave me a license to pontificate with oomph.

At some point during my sophomore year of college, it all began to feel wrong. The ground of certainty began to give way as I walked into Emerson's quicksand ("Gladly we would anchor," he writes, "but the anchorage is quicksand"). I hadn't yet read Nietzsche, Derrida, or Foucault. They would come soon and begin to give me a different kind of license — a way to speak emphatically but with something else I then craved, a superiority that wasn't moral but intellectual. If before, I claimed the mantle of righteousness, here I claimed the mantle of knowing more.

Once I discovered Derrida, I just substituted my old sense of social justice (whatever that is) with the deconstruction of "Western metaphysics." When speaking, I shed my certainty about my political positions and in turn became an enforcer for Derrida. It was unseemly. I remember taking an intellectual history seminar with Bruce Kuklick who, after my second paper, told me, "You're like a meat grinder. Put anything in and it comes out 'deconstruction.'" It was a humbling moment that resonates in my body to this day. Funny, and beautiful, how an offhand comment can reverberate. Prof. Kuklick's one comment remains one of my great teachers.

And so I was still a didactic idiot. C'mon, man, how can you ascribe to that phallocentric metaphysical bullshit?? I could have been preaching anything — the Word of God, the Second Amendment, a NY Times editorial. Only now I had an air of intellectual superiority which had been absent in my moral indignation. Alas, I had yet to see that the what doesn't matter as much as the how.

Ah, youth! So much vigor, such vitality. It looks for outlets — physical, existential, behavioral — everywhere and anywhere. All that energy needs to go somewhere. And while a five year old might be able to run it all off in an empty field, an 18 year old needs something else and so is still looking for that mode of expression that serves and suits: a discourse she can wear. As a teen, I glommed onto social justice (a phrase I really dislike for being so vacuous; I use it here precisely in its vacuity (I love the word vacuity; how often does one get to use it? But I love the verb glom)). And as a college student, it was the postmodern (another vacuous word).

As I got older, I began to truly see that life was complex with so many different angles. I knew that my positions were just positions among positions. As people die around you, you get a taste for the transience of all things. But how to express that? How to speak within the flow of time, without certainty and yet without a lack of certainty: I feel this now and know it will give way? How to speak with, from, and as a position that is always already just another position and yet one that is thoroughly, passionately felt without becoming doctrine?

This is an ongoing exploration, an experiment. I keep looking for a discourse I can wear, a discourse that suits me, as it were. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I've found a promising discourse in stand up comedy and, specifically, in Jerry Seinfeld's persona in "Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars." Stand ups know to take nothing seriously and yet they hold forth with utter abandon. Seinfeld, not the most interesting comic, has emerged with one of the more compelling, inviting, and wise discourses I've happened upon. Like us all, he is in search of a discourse that suits his comportment. This Seinfeld bit, on daytime television, inspires me: it's at once sure and detached. It's a complex ethical stance that claims his position in time towards others, at once sure and slight. What better position is there?

Language is inherently social. We can't control it; it has a will of its own, a will that is collective and ever moving. To speak is to join a conversation always already in session. And that means we're always positioned. Which means we're always looking for a position that suits us, that is flexible, that lets us be funny, smart, ironic, particular, general, smart, interesting. These positions are not easily come by!

Goth, punk, Neo-Nazi, libertarian, NY Jewish Liberal, tech douche: these are positions afforded us by public discourse. Of course, we slip into these positions and reshape from within, an inevitable process of life. But the terms of the discourse are strong; they are apparati for energy expression, affect engines. This is to say, they are modes of expression as much as they are expressions of belief. A kid who gives a Nazi salute wants to feel empowered, different, enraged.

I am not dismissing the content of that Nazi salute. I am introducing the performance of the salute as an essential component of the expression. When I hear about white supremacist marches, this is my first thought — not that these people are Nazis that need to be killed but that they are angry and in search of a discourse that suits them so why not Nazism? And then rather than combat them on the level of content, I seek to approach them as I'd approach any angry, resentful person who just wants to say: Yes! I'm passionate and different and I matter, damnit! (Mind you, this might involve a baseball bat.)

Discourse is the terms of social exchange that exceed us, taking us up, positioning us — and giving us modes of affective energetic release. We slip into it on its terms and assume our position so that others can recognize us in a way that, hopefully, feels good and right. This is all too apparent on dating sites. Oh, she's just another feel good hippy liberal. She's a Marina girl. (an SF reference but substitute any city neighborhood: She's so Upper West Side), She's a Burner! Frankly, I can't imagine what they used to think and say about me... (I have been mercifully liberated from that world).

Social life is a play of cliché and emergence, a relentless intermingling of generality and particularity, of assumptive proscriptions and real complexity. We are all endlessly seeking a discourse we can wear with grace. Yes, the things we say matter. But everything we say happens as an expression that is always situated within a more general discourse of how we assume people talk and interact. How we can say this or that is as important as what we can say. We all just want to drape ourselves in a discourse that suits us.


From Inhuman Generality to Human Particularity: On PT Anderson's Great Trilogy and "Phantom Thread"

It is a grand entrance: an ominous promise — There will be blood — against utter blackness that lingers a tad too long before the desert and mountains emerge monumental, inflected by Jonny Greenwood's dissonant crescendo. The scale is epic. It's literally and figuratively big — big shot, big music, big promise. And the main character who we're introduced to alone, underground, wielding an ax is big.

But he's not big in the way, say, Darkest Hour's Churchill is. His magnitude is not due to his human endeavors; it's due to his ahumanity, to terrestrial forces that are bigger than all of us. To be clear, I don't mean his inhumanity as we generally use it to mean cruelty (which is funny in that few things are as distinctly human as cruelty). Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview is not really human. There's a competition in me, he says and this is what we witness: a force of the earth, specifically of oil's combustible black seething viscosity. While being in what seems like every scene, this is not a movie about Daniel Plainview, about a great, complicated man impacting the world around him, about his trials and tribulations, his loves and pains. No, we don't experience him as a human being; we experience him as a force.

PT Anderson followed this with The Master. Once again, the opening scene is big. Only this time it's not the earth but the ocean inflected by big angular strings. The Master, like There Will Be Blood, is not about things — for example, the founding of Scientology or post-war America — even if these details add texture. No, we are once again in the realm of forces and wills that exceed and animate the human — Joaquin Phoenix fucking the beach and jerking off into the waves. This is not a human story; it's a spectacle of a certain ahuman madness that runs through us.

Inherent Vice, Anderson's next movie, may seem at first like a break as we get beach houses, a glimpse of the ocean, kids running before we see Joanna Newsom, a halo of sun behind her, telling us a tale. Only this is not a tale of love or mystery. It's really note a tale as much as it's a series of trajectories that might or might not cohere here and there but happen nonetheless, all meander and event, all drift and coincidence. Inherent Vice, which I'll admit may be my favorite movie of all time, is structurally all Pynchon as it lives in the space between order and chaos, structure and its relentless collapse.

The brilliant film writer and maker, Ryland Knight, argues that these three films form a trilogy of the face (There Will Be Blood), the body (The Master), and the spirit (Inherent Vice). This is a keen reading that deftly weaves the three films together without unifying them. And it speaks to their scale: they are big movies in ambition and scope (while only The Master is shot on 70mm, the other two feel as though they should be). 

Phantom Thread marks a break. It's a smaller film, literally, shot in 35mm and almost exclusively indoors. It's all tight frames of tea cups and spouts, of flowers and glances, of that narrow foyer, that tight winding staircase, the ripples of a dress. If the trilogy is all grand folds of ahuman forces, Phantom Thread is tiny pleats of human being.

Indeed, from one perspective, this movement from grand ahuman generality to local human particularity is the story of the film itself. Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, deals with the form of woman, of women, as he creates dresses for them. He does not love any one woman. He has no interest in any of his clients, however renowned they are, whatever their class or royal pedigree. (The woman closest to him, his sister, he addresses as "My old so-and-so"  — even she is a generality.) All he sees, all he cares about, is the way the dress gives elegance, shape, form to their shape and form. He can't understand why he's invited to a long time client's wedding. And when that woman behaves unbecomingly, he storms into her apartment and takes the dress back.

And then he meets Alma who, at first, may be another woman in a series of lovers for whom he seems to have no real interest, sexual or otherwise. But Alma is different. Sure, in the beginning when he dresses her, she feels her own movement from an oddly shaped body to a perfect woman, to the generality or ideal of woman. This, however, doesn't last or doesn't suffice. She has taste; she has will; she has desires — at least enough to get her in trouble.

Her insistence on herself as this woman with these desires ruffles him and his house. In one of the more comical scenes, we see her pouring tea and buttering toast noisily — or what he calls "too much movement." But it's not just that it irritates him — an experience we've all had with lovers. No, the problem is that it disrupts his working process, his production of dresses. Which is to say, her way of going is not just juxtaposed with his way, a common lover's quarrel. It's that her particular way of going interrupts his process of making dresses that forge the ideal woman. On the one hand, then, we have women in general — his work, his passion, his "genius." On the other, we have Alma who is this woman with these desires, this way of buttering her toast and pouring her tea. Such is the conflict and structure of the film.

Unlike the trilogy, this film remains tightly focused. The entire film takes place, more or less, in two houses. And we don't ever even see the whole of these houses; we are privy to a room or two but never get a sense of the layout. There are few wide establishing shots. And the one or two we get only make the scene more focused. We get a few mentions of the scope of the Woodcock house; he has dressed royalty and their court from baptism through coming out to wedding.

If this were a common Hollywood movie, a fictional biopic, we'd see the royal wedding shot from afar in all its splendor. It'd tell us how important this man Woodcock is, how important fashion is, how his genius played a pivotal role in post-war European history. Oy! The very thought of this nauseates me.

In PTA's hand, the focus remains small, local, tight: we see the historical figures enter his frame — his pleated house of spiraling staircases — not the other way around. The one time we see him at a wedding, the camera never pans back: we see him and Alma at a table grimacing at the drunken bride in his dress. There is no wide view; everything remains tightly framed. Even when they're driving, we don't see the wide road around them; all we see is Alma and Reynolds, framed by the body of the car.

This image performs the tension of the film: woman as just another woman with a number in an infinite series vs. this woman here and now. It's the tension of the ideal generality vs. all-too-human particularity.

Alma is stubbornly human. And, despite his will to forge the ideal of woman, Reynolds is all-too-human, as well — persnickety, jealous, longing for his mother when's sick and afraid. Alma is a woman who can partake of the generality — we see her above bearing her number 20, another in an infinite series of female forms — but who has a will of her own, a particularity. Reynolds and his sister try to discipline this out of her but, due to Alma's clever and sadistic move, to no avail. They find their way of going in this movement from the general to the particular, from the strength of the ideal to the frailty of the human.

And such, alas, is PTA's own movement from his trilogy to Phantom Thread, his camera moving from the generality of the face, the body, and the spirit to the absolute particularity of this man, this woman, this situation. As Phantom Thread makes clear, this is a laborious movement fraught with pain, vomit, and the risk of death. But it also promises something beautiful: intimacy and love.