How to Read and Why

By Kevin Rabalais

Nearly twenty years ago during a sole but unforgettable encounter with Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, the famous editor told me, “We have to remind ourselves that a man wrote Moby-Dick.” I knew what he meant (I think), but I also understood that to write Moby-Dick, or to write well about anything as simple or complicated as changing a light bulb, a writer must become more than herself. She must be like the musician who, playing a single note, plays, in fact, an accumulation of all the notes she has ever heard and felt and played in the lead-up to the performance.

The same goes for reading. Literature teaches us how to be alone, as Jonathan Franzen has written, but it also teaches us how to live with others. If we read only what pleases or makes us comfortable, failing to heed Kafka’s notion that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us,” we forgo the potential for surprise and wonder.

Over the weekend, an august reviewer criticized Shirley Hazzard’s work, admitting his “sense of irritation at the emphasis on domesticity—for lack of a better word—in much of Hazzard’s fiction.” Besides being one of the most arresting prose stylists in the English language, Hazzard has produced a formidable body of work over the past half-century, with novels winning the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the William Dean Howells Medal. And yet consider the insult and belittling judgment: “irritation at the emphasis on domesticity—for lack of a better word—in much of Hazzard’s fiction.”

The obsessions of any writer will infiltrate her body of work. We go back to our favorites, time and again, precisely because of their peculiarities, the details and idiosyncrasies that make them singular. Would this same critic feel a similar irritation, I wonder, with Conrad and his emphasis on the sea, or Simenon and his emphasis on crime?

Less than twenty-four hours after reading that review, I opened The Abundance, a newly published selection of essays by the wondrous Annie Dillard. The following passage explained my concerns with the review. It also reminded me why those comments flew wide of any mark and how they failed in their obligation to the reader.

We do not read literature in order to see our own reflections, Dillard reminded me. We enter the experience of literature with the expectation that it will reveal those aspects of ourselves that the chaos of our daily lives prevents us from knowing. Or, as Dillard writes in “A Writer in the World”:

You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents. Klee called this insight, quite rightly, “an altogether revolutionary new discovery.”

In that essay, Dillard discusses what each writer must consider before she begins a new work. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment,” she writes. At the same time, readers—particularly those who get paid to read—must be willing to step outside of their own concerns, their own prejudices and enjoyments, so that they are able to give voice to the wider astonishment that literature permits. Only in doing so will we experience the great privilege of literature.

A reviewer who examines a book with only her own tastes and concerns at hand will always fail to live up to the possibilities of that book. At the same time, a true reader, the kind of reader who lives inside of literature, the reader who feels it in the marrow, will never close herself off to the possibility of being astonished.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden. Too often, however, the default position among reviewers is to shield themselves from the true experience that the book intends. They assume that the book has not lived up to their expectations when, in fact—and this is the detail we often find difficult to admit—they fail to live up to the book.

I look forward to going back to Hazzard’s work and learning from her “domesticity” and everything else she has to reveal. And while I do, I recommend that the August Male Reviewer read someone with a more generous spirit, say, Annie Dillard, who recommends that we read outside of our time and that we adapt ourselves, always.

“Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” she asks. “Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”

Indeed, why are we reading if not in hope of being overwhelmed and continually astonished? Why read if not to become betterand otherthan ourselves?


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