Wednesday, October 8, 2008


While it’s theoretically possible to get every nuance of a narrative on first read, practically speaking it doesn’t happen. Blame what you like -- the busy pace of life, the ascension of movies and television, a lack of training or discipline -- but most of us read looking for major plot developments and broad characterizations. With the simple stuff we are content. The finer points of symbolism and structural symmetry and scores of other small things an author sweats over slide right on by. You don’t need to be a savant to grasp them, though. You just need to read the piece again. And again. And again.

The first time I tried repetitive reading, I was a college freshman and neck deep in British literature. I was having to seriously read poetry rather than skim it, another first. One assignment involved writing an essay on the meaning of Thomas Hardy’s “
The Darkling Thrush.” The professor took the much-derided notion of authorial intent seriously and informed us that, yes, there were wrong ways to go about this reading business and our grade would reflect our errors if we were careless. “Start by staring at the poem,” he said. “Don’t take notes. Don’t outline. Just stare.”

So I did.

At book signings, authors sometimes say that the act of scribbling their names over and over reduces that familiar combination of vowels and consonants into something abstract. That was how I felt after moving my eyes over those thiry-two lines for the seventh or eight time. Far from illuminating it, repetitively reading the poem seemed to conceal its meaning. I wasn’t getting it.

And then, without warning, I was.

It’s difficult to explain, but at some point your mind stops skipping over the important bits, and the old cliché becomes true: The pieces do, indeed, click. But it doesn’t happen if you don’t familiarize yourself with the words themselves -- the bricks and mortar of any written work. This is yet another reason for
The Middle Shelf. Forcing myself back to favorite books teaches me not only how the authors put them together, but how I can do so, too.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
wauter de tuinkabouter)

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