On Reading


In his renowned essay "How to Write with Style" Kurt Vonnegut stated:

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

Perhaps that is the problem, after leaving education most stop studying. They are satisfied with simply identifying those marks on the paper and divining a modicum of sense from them.

Reading, truly reading, is like listening: it is hard. It is complex and multi-faceted; it has layers and depths and how deeply we choose to go determines the value we get from it.

We can simply recognise the marks on the paper, happy that we do so, or we can absorb their meaning and relationship to those around them.

We can be indifferent or fastidious, choosing just an appreciation for what we have read or strive for a deeper understanding.

We can gloss over words we do not know, accepting an approximation of meaning based on the context of their surroundings or we can research them, absorb their meanings, read and re-read them, say them out loud until we are familiar with their taste and feel in the mouth. We can compare their true meaning to our initial approximation, comparing not only how successful we were at interpreting them but also how successful the author was in contextualising them - or whether they have taken liberties with that meaning.

Language is not fixed - it morphs and twists and grows. And we grow with it if we allow ourselves.

Whose meaning?

Vonnegut also says:

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Not all texts are created equal and not all offer such layers for us to peel away. Some pieces are written just to convey facts, no interpretation required. Others, designed to carry you through to their conclusion at breakneck speed leaving no time for reflection.

Choosing the right style for the piece at hand is an element of the writer's art.

Part of the joy of reading is in the discovery, in finding the hidden meanings; in feeling as though you are part of a select group that gets the private joke, and that - in this particular instance - you are as clever as the author.

This joy should not be denied to the reader.

And it is the reader's prerogative to go further, to derive their own meaning from what they read.

Nietzsche once wrote:

It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

It may have been incredibly pretentious but I once told my English teacher that I would fail my English Literature exam as I didn't "need a qualification to tell me how to appreciate a good book." (An actual quote from my 15 year old self.)

Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the writer's craft, too naive to grasp the nuances of emotion, too headstrong to conform to the so-called expert's interpretations and the established consensus.

Instead I took what I wanted from the texts, drew my own conclusions and enjoyed them in my own way.

Sure enough I failed.

I have no doubt that were I to read the same texts now I would have a different appreciation for them. I am older, allegedly wiser, and with greater experience and understanding behind me.

Forcing a meaning upon someone who is not ready to receive it is pointless, even destructive.

Meanings aren't fixed. We take what we need and move on, but what we need alters, shifts with age, experience and circumstance.

It frustrates me when people refuse to re-read a book solely because they know how it ends. It may be a cliché that the journey is just as valuable as the destination but, whilst you may not take a different route, you can gain a new appreciation for the sights and surroundings as you go.

Repeat journeys provide new rewards.

Reading is as hard or simple as we make or want it and can indeed be an art requiring motivation and self discipline.

But we should not avoid being challenged.