On Tactics

I’ve redone my office.  This was a much more arduous task than I originally thought (although I sort of had a premonition, I suppose, because I kept putting it off), but is now in the main done.  While the geography doesn’t look that different, the feng shui is markedly changed.  I have more pacing room, a necessary component to my writing ability.  (I also pace when I’m on the phone, a habit that required first very long cords and then, later, portable handsets.)

Part of any convulsion like this is the uncovering of Old Stuff.  In this case, papers of various arcane and now-meaningless import.  Some of it, though, has been a delight to rediscover.  Like an archaeologist with a new potsherd or a bone, I’ve found layers of past interest embedded in corners unexplored since my last major make-over.  Cartoons, scribbled notes, lists, fragments of stories, and far too many scraps with phone numbers and no names.  Hmm.

One thing I remembered saving and now have in front of me is an essay by Charles Elliott, How To Read Proust, published in the October 1984 issue of The Smithsonian.  I xeroxed it and punched holes to include it in a notebook, but here I find it, mixed in with a lot of other paper that I’ve now discarded.

I have not read Proust.  I have friends who have read Proust.  Proust, much like Joyce, is a rite of passage.  To have read Proust seems to put one in a special category of people, Those Who Have Read Books Everyone Knows About But Few Ever Read.  They are among the artists whose name alone conjures impressions of high art apart from specific titles.  “Have you read Joyce?”  Why, yes.  “Ah.”  The conversation need go no further.  A sign has been given and answered and a recognition of kindred æsthetes has occurred, and you may now continue discussing Other Things with a knowledge that Deeper Meanings will not go unacknowledged, even in the most mundane of topics.  “Have you read Proust?”  No. “Oh.”  A different apprehension, a shift in approach.  Conversation may proceed, but it will not be the same as what might have been engaged.  (Claiming, quickly upon the realization that the sign has not been properly answered, that one has read, say, Pynchon or even Gibbon may restore the level of mutual appreciation, but not the particular frisson of potential mutuality.)

The essay is both comic and serious.  It discusses tactics to be employed in the reading of “difficult” books, sprinkled with epigrams from Virginia Woolf, who endeavored to read Proust.  And continued to endeavor.  “Every one is reading Proust…I am shivering on the brink” reads the first one, from 1922.

What follows is a catalog of useful techniques for dealing with daunting prose.  Deep reading is immensely rewarding, but let’s be honest—it can also be a challenge.  A lot of work, in fact.  Mr. Elliott (who was an editor and vice president at Knopf, and knew, no doubt, a few things about daunting prose, both good and bad) strikes at the core of the problem by concentrating on exactly that—concentration.  How often are we reading along, working our way through a densely-articulated page, and suddenly find that we’ve been missing whole swathes of story because our attention drifted over to what we’re having for dinner later or the argument we had last week or what color we might want to paint the walls?  We start over.  At some point the mind rebels and refuses to allow the kind of attention necessary to parse the lines we think we very much want to read.  Faulkner comes to mind.

(I find posture the most important and when I’m doing research outright discomfort can be useful.  It has been decades since I’ve been able to read lying down.)

Reading, whether we like to admit it or not, is often dependent on mood.  Books enjoyed one day might be impenetrable on another, simply because our internal ‘scapes have shifted, tectonically, and blocked our ability to appreciate what’s in front of us.  (It’s the same with people—we all know those with whom we must be in “the mood” for.)  Sometimes, the proper arrangement of our component cognition waits years before access is granted.  (I tried to read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany four times over the course of ten years before one day it just opened to me.)

Sometimes we just have to find the right posture.

No one should be embarrassed about being unable to read something.  There are plenty of books, of all types, levels, styles, subjects, and depth is something we learn to plumb.  (“Being deep” however is no excuse for the waters to be murky.)

I may yet one day read Proust.  I’ve read Joyce, yes.  (Also Pynchon, Fowles, Gardner, and Burgess.)  To get the most out of such books you should be prepared to dive deep, but that takes practice.  And we all have fallen asleep while reading.  Practice, yes—but a few worthwhile techniques or tactics couldn’t hurt, either.

Such reading can sometimes be like cleaning a room and finding all kinds of stuff you forgot (or never knew) was there.  The deeper the pile, often the more surprising the discovery.

But if it’s a major project, sometimes taking a corner at a time is better than just overturning the entire landscape and thinking you can put it all back together.

“I followed my new diversion of book binding.  I am covering Proust in little shiny squares of gummed paper.”  Virginia Woolf, 1934.