Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Close Reader

Perhaps all novelists dream of the close reader: perhaps every reader tries to be one. But no reader, however perfect, reads a text as closely as the novelist would want, with the adequate amount of concentration. And even if a reader has concentrated, so much is lost, because memory is so defective. The art of reading, like every art, is an art of detail. ... But no one can retain all the details, nor the details' thematic form. Mostly, what remains is an impression, an isolated sentence.
Novelist Adam Thirwell in The Guardian ponders the haphazard oddness of his reading and lack of concentration in the face of so much material to read. The piece made me smile because I saw so much of myself in there too, constantly dipping into and nibbling round the edges of things, though I always have one book I am trying to approach as the "ideal close reader"!

Yet even when you have read something, the details slip away so fast. Thirwell is so right when he says :
The only hope is rereading. 'A good reader,' said Nabokov, 'a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.' The only hope is continuous repetition. How else, after all, can anyone see the form? And if you can't see a work's form, then it isn't really reading at all. But who, therefore, has the time to really read?
Thirwell, incidentally, has just won a Somerset Maugham award for Miss Herbert. May he find his own close readers!


Burhan said...

Thanks for posting this! This article contain some stuff I could use, and "close read", for my dissertation.

Reminds me also of something Blanchot wrote about literary critics who haven't the time to close read:

"Criticism is an awkward profession. The critic hardly reads at all. Not necessarily because he has not the time but because he is so concerned with writing that he cannot read. So that if he tends to over-simplify – sometimes by complicating – and if he praises of blames, if the book’s simplicity is obliterated by his righteous indignation of his benevolent enthusiasm, this is only the result of his impatience. Since he is unable to read one book he is obliged to not read twenty, thirty, a hundred: and this countless non-reading, though it enthralls him on one hand, on the other proves to be more or less satisfactory and makes him pass more and more rapidly from book to book, from one book he has barely dipped into, to another he seems to have already read, until at last, having not read every book, he might have come face to face with himself in a moment of unexpected leisure and have begun to read, were it not that he by now become a writer on his own right."

bibliobibuli said...

in turn, thanks a lot for that! it could be very true - now that i blog and review books (in my own small way!) i am under a lot of pressure to read a lot of books that i did not, myself, elect to read.

but i will not compromise on the core of reading at least every other book for my own enjoyment.

i reckon that if i lose the pleasure of reading i will not be able to function at all as a critical reader and writer about books.

and i try to review books that i get a lot out of for myself (which is why the majority of my reviews are positive ... there are others which don't get reviewed because they simply don't excite me and i can't bring myself to read more than a few pages ...).

lit blogger edward champion reckons that :
"To ensure that those practicing literary criticism still maintain some passion for books, I think that all literary critics should be asked what they read for fun. Not a list of the greatest books. Just the last thing they read for fun. If the literary critic cannot name a single book that made them laugh, filled them with joy, or otherwise caused them to get excited over the last year, then the guilty literary critic should be banned from writing for any newspaper or periodical for a six-month period until they can truly embrace a love for literature. This should weed out the dullards and the dimwits and the humorless individuals who transform the promising pastures of literary criticism into soporific fallow."

Burhan said...

then again, as sharon has blogged before, pierre bayard thinks that you should be allowed to talk about books you've never read:

i find close reading great. how rich and delicious life would be if you are able to take so much out of reading just a few words. or out of an experience as simple as, like with proust, the movement of falling asleep or the eating of a tiny madeleine cake.

jacques derrida presented a famous lecture at harvard where he spent more than four hours close reading a single line in a poem.

bibliobibuli said...

four hours on one line ... wow!

but we all talk about books we haven't read to some extent. we know of them, about them. (it's part of my business to know).

e.g. i can talk quite a bit about sebastian faulks bond novel even though i haven't actually seen a copy yet, as a result of having read so many articles and reviews. i may never actually read it (most probably won't) but i enjoy being part of the conversation.

as baynard and thirwell both point out here, you so quickly lose what you've read - it slips away from you so fast that in a sense you're always talking about a vague memory of the text and not the thing itself.

but i love to read writing i'm enjoying slowly, and reread. i have had to reread some of miranda july's stories twice over to squeeze more pleasure out of them and may read them over again.

it's also part of being a writer, you want to see exactly how things are done ...

Towanda said...

Thanks for this blog! I love it!
I am a translator and I found this blog precisely because I read once that a translator is a close reader...I was looking for a good translation of "close reader" into Spanish... but first I needed to know whta "close reader " means and I came across you blog! it's fantastic! I will have now to reread all your comments cause for sure I must have skipped a couple of gems ... you see, in translaton we need to become that close reader :) Maria, Buenos Aires