Learning How to Read Slowly Again
The demise of print looks as if it will be a long, drawn-out affair. John Sutherland, the chairman of last year’s Man Booker Prize Committee, offers an arresting statistic: Today more novels are published in one week than Samuel Johnson had to deal with in a decade. As he calculates it in “How to Read a Novel,” it would take approximately 163 lifetimes to read the fiction currently available, at the click of a mouse, from Amazon.com.
So what to read? That’s the question. But as Mr. Sutherland’s title suggests, there’s a second question entangled with the first, addressed in several new books devoted to the lost art of reading. It’s a Malthusian problem. The amount of printed material increases exponentially, but the time available for reading remains static or, in many cases, decreases arithmetically. So once we have decided what to read, the question then becomes, How to read? And the paradoxical answer is, Much more slowly.
In “Reading Like a Writer” the novelist Francine Prose shows how to do it. She forces the act of slow reading by singling out excerpts from her favorite writers and zeroing in on single words, then sentences, then paragraphs, teasing out the specifics that transmute raw language into style and an artistically meaningful form. She has a notion, quite correct in my experience, that all readers start out slow, savoring individual syllables and words. Gradually, under pressure, they speed up, consuming more but enjoying and absorbing less.
Reading becomes information processing. The sheer bliss of the childhood reading experience comes to seem like a lost Eden, recaptured only in thrilling fits and starts or when time, mercifully, stands still. Prison and vacation make good readers.
Ms. Prose sets out to rewire the reader’s circuitry and get the electricity flowing the right way again. She has excellent taste, and she picks fights, which is fun. She heaps scorn, for example, on the standard advice that a writer should show rather than tell. She also admits to a prejudice against using brand names in fiction. It’s the lazy writer’s way of placing a character or establishing a social setting. Nothing can date a work more quickly, she writes, “than a reference to a brand of bed linen that no longer exists.”
This argument raises an intriguing question. Balzac and Dickens did not rely on brand names, but they did minutely describe clothing to indicate social status and character. Like obsolete brand names, these styles and, in many cases, the articles of clothing themselves have become extinct. Only period experts understand the meaning of clothes, carriages and interior decoration in the world of Turgenev or Flaubert. What’s a literary realist to do?
Mr. Sutherland, in “How to Read a Novel,” tackles this problem from another angle. How much does a reader need to know about the world that a writer describes to appreciate a novel? A fair amount, he argues. Some London critics took matters to extremes when they picked apart Ian McEwan’s “Saturday.” The novel, set in central London, contains inaccuracies. The Spearmint Rhino, a strip club, does not stay open until the morning hours, for example.
This is absurd. But to call “Saturday” a novel of north London, as the novelist John Banville wrote in a scathing review, is not simply an error of fact, it’s a gross misunderstanding of the novel’s milieu, Mr. Sutherland argues. “The point is there are many Londons in London fiction,” Mr. Sutherland writes. “And ‘Saturday’ is a quintessentially Fitzrovia-Bloomsbury novel.” So where does that leave the reader in New York, no matter how slowly he or she reads?
These impediments do not figure at all for Edward Mendelson, who holds seven classic novels up to close moral scrutiny in “The Things That Matter.” Each book is chosen because it sheds light on a significant stage in human life, beginning, naturally, with birth (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”) and ending with death, or at least the uneasy prospect of a future minus us (Virginia Woolf’s “Between the Acts”). In between, Mr. Mendelson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, tackles “Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Middlemarch” and ‘To the Lighthouse.”
All seven novels are by women. Three, perversely, are by one author, Woolf. Mr. Mendelson defends his choices in a rather sophistical introduction, but then gets right down to the heavy work of close reading. He can be oppressively earnest. “The Things That Matter” can seem like an endless sermon or a higher form of Cliffs Notes (“ ‘Jane Eyre’ records a journey out of a childish world into an adult one and a journey out of inequality and into equality”), but the author’s shovel work generally turns up riches. He takes the reader deep into the moral universe of his authors and pulls together thematic threads with extraordinary skill. He is a good reader. Not my kind of reader, perhaps, but he thinks books are important and reads them as if his life depended on it.
So do the 55 contributors to “You’ve Got to Read This Book!” That’s how excited they are about “the book that changed their life.” They need an exclamation point to express it.
There’s something profoundly depressing about seeing “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” listed as someone’s No. 1 life-changing reading experience. But so it was for Lisa Nichols, described as “a motivational speaker, personal coach and the founder and C.E.O. of Motivating the Teen Spirit.” Uplift and go-to-it entrepreneurship trump Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, although a few fiction titles, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” make the grade. Otherwise it’s “The Science of Getting Rich” and “How to Make Millions With Your Ideas.” Maybe the Europeans are right about us, after all.
Oddly enough, none of the books discussed above deal with the pleasures of rereading. The book we read and loved at 20 is not the same book a decade or two later. The words have not changed, but the reader has. I recently reread “Lolita,” a book I first encountered as a callow undergraduate and thought I understood. How wrong I was. “Lolita,” on my much later reading, seemed much more shocking, and twice as brilliant. How did I miss the boat so badly? That’s one of the drawbacks of rereading: it involves a face-to-face confrontation with an earlier you, which can be a highly embarrassing encounter.
Nevertheless, I have boldly embarked on a middle-aged reading program, returning to some of the writers who, to borrow a phrase, “changed my life” or at least made a deep impression. Nabokov, after “Pale Fire,” I now find deeply disappointing. D. H. Lawrence, to my surprise, still holds his value. Thackeray seems funnier; Flannery O’Connor more biting.
I fear to pick up “Crime and Punishment,” a novel that left me with the shakes when I was 20. But I promise to read it slowly. If all goes well, the ultimate challenge awaits, a writer who defined all that was profound, romantic and mystical for an entire generation in the 1960’s.