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.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

With reluctance (after all, merely acknowledging a happening can gum up its works) I'll say: Whooosh! You're on a fucking roll of late! Holy smokes!

Daniel Coffeen said...

You're kind....I fear, however, that it's less of a roll than punctuated moments of vitality. But I'll take it.