How I Read

several books machine.jpg

Agostino Ramelli

Copperplate engraving of a machine designed for studying several books at once, 1588

How can we read better? Recently I suggested the value of reading with a pen in the hand, ready to mark the pages at any moment. In return I received a score of emails from readers lamenting that even thus armed they felt the text was passing them by. “Tell us how you read and mark a novel,” more than one correspondent challenged me.

Well, I would not want to be prescriptive. We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession; certainly his wonderful essays on other writers, the fruits of that reading, are at least as fine an achievement as his stories. So if reading is a skill, there must be techniques and tools that everyone can use or try, even if we use them differently.

Experience is important. No one is born a fine reader. If you write a lot yourself obviously you become more curious about how certain effects can be achieved or avoided and with application over the years your sensibility is enhanced. In my case translation has been important. I came to Italy when I was twenty-five. Living in a second language, I became more aware of how language drives and shapes thought. Translating and teaching translation forced me constantly to take texts to pieces in order to put them back together in my own tongue. I became very conscious of elements of style, if only because I felt the tension between the author’s habits and my own. Translating texts together with students, I have also had the benefit of discovering all the things they saw that I didn’t.

This will not be much help for those who do not write, translate or teach. So, to honor the promise made to those who wrote to me, let me try to say a few words about how I go about reading a novel.

As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel? I start Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and at once it is about a man who has been excluded from a group of friends without knowing why; the mishap has plunged him into a depression that seems disproportionate to the damage suffered. So I begin to look for everything relating to community and belonging, to the individual’s relationship to the community, to loneliness and companionship. I underline any words that fall into this lexical field. Is the community positive or negative or both? Are there advantages to being excluded, even when it is painful? Do loneliness and depression produce strength, creativity? Is the book aligning itself with the position of the person excluded?

Or I start a novel by Hemingway and at once I find people taking risks, forcing themselves toward acts of courage, acts of independence, in a world described as dangerous and indifferent to human destiny. I wonder if being courageous is considered more important than being just or good, more important than coming out a winner, more important than comradeship. Is it the dominant value? I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to courage. Sometimes, if you’re reading an e-book it’s fun to run a search on a key word: fear, strength, in this case maybe, alone, loneliness, company in Murakami’s. You can see all the ways the word is used and who it is applied to. E-books certainly offer a reader new tools for getting a grip on a novel.

What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? That’s the question I suppose I’m asking—and what is the consequent debate arising from that atmosphere? When I start reading Coetzee or Marilynne Robinson it soon seems that what matters most is good and evil, finding a way to be good while acknowledging the thrust toward transgression. Yet the tone of these two authors could hardly be more different. Why? Again I’m looking at all words and expressions that have to do with these qualities and putting them in relation to each other. When I read Muriel Spark I am immediately up against people who seek to dominate and dupe each other. Life is a struggle, a competition. Every Spark novel is a battle to see who will come out on top. And I want to know which side in the struggle I’m being drawn toward and why. Very soon it’s clear that the only person who will really come out on top is Muriel Spark.


Getting a sense of the values around which the story is organizing itself isn’t always easy; I might change my mind two or three times. But let’s say that the mere attempt to do that gives me something to look for. After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these force fields—fear/courage, belonging/exclusion, domination/submission—and the style of the book, the way the plot unfolds. How is the writer trying to draw me into the mental world of his characters through his writing, through his conversation with me?

Per Petterson opens Out Stealing Horses with a description of titmice banging into the window of the narrator’s remote cabin home and falling dizzily into the evening snow. Warm inside, the aging Trond Sander remarks, “I don’t know what they want that I have.” The natural world is an enigma, possibly a threat. Collisions, deaths, and bitter cold are the norm. The reader knows at once that something will go terribly wrong, and that the catastrophe will present itself as a mystery. We are anxious for Trond, and even for ourselves. Soon we will be reading about unhappiness. All the same, reading about another man’s troubles in the safe space of book can be a pleasure, as watching foul weather can be a pleasure when warm and safe inside a cabin. We savor our safety in comparison to Trond’s predicament. Petterson’s focus on the material world, presenting characters who know how to cut wood, build a cabin, and light a fire, suggests that perhaps the book too, with its short terse sentences, its carefully constructed paragraphs, is a kind of resource, a shelter against a dangerous world.

Asking these questions is at best a tricky business, but precisely because of that exciting and intriguing. It gives direction to the pen in our hands, the active attitude of our reading. Let me use a book everyone knows as an example.

Imagine we are approaching Ulysses for the first time. What is it about? In the opening pages Stephen Dedalus jokes and vies with Buck Mulligan. It is a battle of wits. Each tries to get the better of the other, intellectually. Stephen is anxious that he will seem Buck’s servant when he returns him the shaving equipment he forgot outside. Stephen does not want to serve, to be subordinate, as he does not want to lose the battle of wits. Both he and Buck feel superior to the Englishman Haines and resent the fact that the circumstances of history allow an Englishman to feel superior to an Irishman. Stephen is irritated that the woman who brings the milk affords more respect to Buck because he studies medicine not literature. Teaching in school, Stephen is in a position of easy superiority to his pupils, but has to kowtow to a headmaster he feels is inferior to him. People are measured by their cleverness, their sensitivity. Often they accrue pathos by being more intelligent and sensitive than those who dominate them, socially, economically.

So much for the first section. Already the extravagantly ambitious style, at its most poetic when inside Stephen’s head, aligns the narration—and possibly Joyce himself—with Stephen and his cleverness, his hurt. We are to be on his side. However, the style is really so clever, so full of eloquence, imagery, musicality, that there is no doubt that if we put ourselves in relation to Joyce the way he puts his characters in relation to each other then certainly we are inferior to him. Joyce is better with words than we are and he wants that to be felt, as Stephen wants Buck to feel he is the better. On the other hand, Joyce needs us to buy his book, as Stephen and Buck will look for money from Haines by selling him cleverly resentful formulations of how Irish art has been reduced to “the cracked looking glass of a servant.”

I’m not suggesting that we have got to the heart of Ulysses, but we now have something to think about and a way into the text. The book seems to be very much about establishing a hierarchy between people where the value that matters is not the value that society recognizes. And in fact the second chapter opens with Bloom religiously serving his wife, where Stephen refused to serve—except when Molly comes across the word “metempsychosis,” she has to ask her husband what it means. Like Stephen, Bloom has a superior mind but is not resentful about service, since it’s his wife he’s serving, even though he knows she is planning to betray him.


While this process of putting the characters in some relation to each other and the author in relation to the reader is going on, another crucial question is hammering away in my head. Is this a convincing vision of the world? Is it really such a disaster, Murakami, if four friends exclude you from their circle? Would they really have done that and would anyone have reacted as Tsukuru Tazaki did? Is it really true, Hemingway, that courage is so crucial and the world so indifferent? Does it make sense, Joyce, to be constantly using wit and aesthetic sensibility as a way of measuring people against each other? In short, are these real concerns, or have they just been brought together to “do literature”?

If there is one thing I dislike, and this perhaps tells you more about me than the books I read, it is the suspicion that the whole construct was put together merely out of opportunism, to write a literary book, to win a literary prize. But how one might hazard some assessment of a novel’s authenticity is a question I shall leave to another blog.

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