“There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.’ (Man Ray, in his essay ‘To Be Continued, Unnoticed’ (1948).
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Recent research has shown that nonsense sharpens the intellect and verse broadens the mind. But at the same time several people have recently been lamenting that social networks like Twitter and Facebook are one cause of the decline of the ability and/or tendency to read (fat) novels. In one way this is probably true (my reading behaviour, at least, has changed noticeably over the past few years, from more deep-reading to more skimming and reading bits and pieces). However, I think that a certain hard and fast opposition is often assumed between these kinds of reading that is unnecessary and should probably be re-thought.
I used to immerse myself in fat novels, so I sympathize when Don Share writes that he is ‘tired of mini-reflections’ and protests them by reaffirming his love for the weighty novel/book (having for example read all of Dr. Johnson). However, I think that Twittering and big books need not be mutually exclusive:
1. if you really want you can read Tweets as a story (haven’t been following it, but I think Vanessa Place is even Tweeting a story of some kind (although that does sort of defeat the whole purpose doesn’t it?), and someone, I believe it was Darren Wershler compiled a poem from Tweets, or were they Facebook status updates?). And of course, it is in the minute, the fragmentary, that bigger histories wait to be unveiled, and which can be the genesis of lengthy monographs – as Tara Brabazon points out:
I am drawn to the monographs that take small ideas, moments, events or objects and use them to understand major issues of our time: war, terrorism, social injustice, intellectual despair or collective loss. Something seemingly insignificant – a song, an organisation, a law – reflects large contextual concerns. The resultant projects are applicable and extraordinary, transforming fragments and filaments of culture into the building blocks of social challenge and change.
2. Conversely, there is nothing to say that big fat tomes of books must be read from cover to cover, page 1 to page 1000. Many people approach books as objects of fetish. I used to hardly open a book so as not to crack the spine. After I had finished a book it would look newer than before it had been read. And I am still inclined to worship books, but after working in an antique bookstore (where they throw out one cubic ton of books per months), I learnt to also handle books somewhat less spastically as precious objects and to treat them more as objects of use. It was also at this bookstore that I started experimenting with different ways of reading, like reading only the first page or sentence/paragraph of each of the many different books that would pass my hands each day (from Manga comics, to regional history, self-help books, philosophy, poetry, gardening, porn, etc).
Anselm Berrigan writes similarly of his reading habits, also mentioning that he likes to read his books in varying order:
Anyway I like to read books of poems in any order I can make work. Often enough that’s one to back, but that can be a bore, a pain, an order that is simultaneously important and out of the question unless we’re dealing with one long shot, some epic or some unquartered thing.
But where he gives in with the epic, saying these he does read linearly, I say why stop there? Of course, they are obviously meant to be read from beginning to end, but even an epic poem/novel allows for multiple approaches. A book need not be written like the labyrinthine House of Leaves (filled with black blocks in the pages, footnotes within footnotes, and a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside) to read it as such.
Curtis Faville recently wrote something surprisingly similar about what he call skip-reading as a creative act:
As a voracious reader of many disciplines, I’ve had to limit my coverage of most of the work I sample. I rarely read a novel end-to-end, and prefer shorter works–poems, essays, short stories–because I can skip around, sample taste, and derive vivid impressions of style, drift, form, without having to invest hours and hours, or days and weeks, methodically and laboriously devouring long works. Few long books (texts) justify such laborious expenditures of time.
This is great, although he too prefers to synchronize books with reading method, where I feel that any book could be skip-read, or read transversally. But where Curtis Faville also developed a method for utilizing skip-reading for chance methods of writing, I would like to emphasize the affective part of the reading and the possibility of transposing that experience directly on to some other activity.
I just wanted to make the point that reading methods, styles, and affectations can overlap and need not be restricted to the medium they most obviously appear to be most suited. Academics are constantly skimming through vast numbers of books in search of particular information. But it can be perfectly valid to read a philosophy book in such a way; not to find a particular footnote or paragraph, but simply to be affected by it in a certain way, to allow the book to affect you in a way that you might then go on to express in any number of other ways.
Philip Roth thinks the novel will disappear in the foreseeable future.
His friend Paul Auster respectfully disagrees.
I think I do too. But that doesn’t mean there is only one way of reading them.