Friday, 9 November 2018

How Do you Read?

 How do you read?
Do you focus on the author's message and line of argument, evaluating modes of writing, such as voice, theme, structure, plot, narrative point of view, character, use of dialogue? Or do you just get sucked right in, so that you’re there, in the writer’s world?

I love the way reading feeds and refreshes me, and I wonder if readers like me filter their reading through their previous experiences, opinions and misconceptions. But there’s also bring an ability to get lost in the narrative, even when it is patently nothing like your experience of life. Most people surface-read, which leads to superficial retention, and poor comprehension, of the text. Deep reading uses the skills of analysis, synthesis and problem-solving, but does it  'spoil the story'?

I've just read the Booker winner, Milkman, by Anna Burns, an Irish writer who has produced a clever and absorbing book about 'the troubles'. Set, perhaps, in the 1990s, and located, perhaps in a Northern Irish town locked in sectarian dispute, it's about an 18-year-old girl who is pursued…stalked, almost… by a member of the IRA looking for a bit of eye candy for his arm. There's hardly any violence described, and yet the atmosphere is heavy with the idea of violence and death. I loved it, and fully recommend it, but it would be an easy book to skim read, being rather dense and there are only six chapter over its 350 pages). None of the characters are referred to by their real names...our protagonist is 'middle sister', a previously rejected boy as 'Somebody MacSomebody, and her lover as 'almost boyfriend' But it deserves to be read slowly, with thought. It's subtle, but under its skin there is clarity.. What it tells you about the troubles, are the things no news report could tell you.  Don't take my word for this, though. Here's Claire Kilroy  in The Guardian… Milkman calls to mind several seminal works of Irish literature. In its digressive, batty narrative voice, it resembles a novel cited by the narrator: Tristram Shandy. It is Beckettian in its ability to trace the logical within the absurd. 

I looked at my last two pieces of reading and asked did the reading hold me? Did I feel the passion of the writer? Did it explain itself to my satisfaction? Did the story increase reading pleasure? Or did my mind wander away from the page? However, this might be true of viewing story too. I read  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  in1985and now I’ve watched the TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  This was faithful to the story, but included other character’s perspectives in the episodes, dedicating some episodes to quite periphery characters like the husband and the wife. 

Reading a novel alongside a play or film demonstrates how differently prose fiction and dramatic script can be. I’ve done this too with the film Arrival; it blew me away and I immediately got the book of short stories it comes from on my Kindle. The original,  Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang, is basically the same story, but the screenplay reimagining the landscape and made more of a final twist.  

Arrival  (2016 screenplay by Eric Heissere) is a film that had its genesis in short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang 2002, Tor Books) I saw the film, watched the ‘extras’ on the DVD and bought the book of short stories, I was so enamoured with the film. Having read the story on the page, I asked myself about the way the adapting writer approached the challenge of taking a long short story into a movie. For instance, there is a massive, esoteric plot twist at the end of the film, which in the book, is known by the reader almost from the start. The theme of both is linguistics and precognition, which is slowly revealed in the film, but fully apparent from the start of the story. The filmmaker reimagined the sci-fi element so that it was far more pleasing, visually. The poster does not give away any of the subtle of story, the theme or even that there will be a mystery within it, revealed at the end. It is focused on its stars, in the hope they will sell the movie. The ET spaceship, which is visible to the left, is not clarified, except as an UFO which is being threatened, or attacked, by the US helicopters. The film is a complex emotional drama, and very beautiful in both script, structure, and art work, but it’s almost as if the poster wants to hide this, instead giving the wrong impression that this will be like most sci-fi movies. Which it is not. 

May Angelou said in her autobiographyI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. 
I can identify with that. Story is massively important to humans. Lisa Crone has been re-examining the human experience of story, demonstrating that the brain craves story, not for ‘entertainment value’, but because it allows us to plan for the unknown. She believes that very early man listened to stories and processed them as ‘simulators’ which might point out ways to approach and survive the unknown and unexpected. The reason we get so ‘lost’ in books, storytellings and dramatisations is a deliberate ploy on the part of our brain…it’s a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine that’s triggered by the intense curiosity that that an effective story instantly engenders…we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality because story translates big ideas, dry facts, abstract concepts, into very specific scenarios… watch her TED talk Wired for Story here.



Everything we read isn’t story, however. I noted down everything I’d read (and written and heard) in a 24 hour period, from 6.30 am to 10.30
All the stories are in red.

READ emails on phone
READ Weather  “ “
READ Cookbook for recipes
READ some of  The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
WRITE shopping list
WRITE emails online
HEARD The Radio 4 Story of the Week

READ Guardian (some of it)
READ seed packets
READ plant food box
WRITE My Welsh Homework
READ the Welsh handbook at Welsh class
READ The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, first chapters
READ internet info on The Power
WATCH the news at ten
READ (in bed) The Waves.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argues that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critical reader, who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the read. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. As we’ll be doing textiles later, I liked this quote…text is a tissue of quotations, drawn from innumerable centers of culture, rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

I like the idea that the reader is as important as the writer. And in a way, I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read, in just the same way as one interprets modern dance, a sculpture or artwork, or even an installation or video art, such as Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller, which I talked about in a previous blogpost review. I can certainly be swayed by what people say about a book, and often don’t buy one if there are bad reviews (although I might borrow it). 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by people we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Saligner. He seems to argue that a writer's views about their own work are no more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation, as real as the author's intention. It certainly eliminates an issue of reviewing/discussing/interpreting books – how anyone can ever know what the writer intended? It also makes a point with regard to the way women in the past had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. Of course that ‘rouse’ could only work once the real name of the author was revealed, otherwise The Casual Vacancy would have dropped like a stone. On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in this as a literary argument; they don’t really ‘utilize it’. Otherwise, the Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.

If you'd like some help with reading more widely, deeply and passionately try these books; 

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud 

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading by Susan Hill 

Maps and Legends; Michael Chabon
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
The Child Books Built by Frances Spufford.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller


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