Just Read It

Post Date: November 7th, 2010

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m reading a heck of a lot more.

Instead of generating a new set of 50,000 words, I’m reading others’ thousands of well-crafted phrases, sentences, pages. Not only does reading help me edit those reams I’ve already generated, but I’ve decided it’s time to go old school and finish a novel sooner rather than later. I have to think tough and act tough like a coach and say, “GET IN THAT CHAIR AND START READING, HAWKS!”

Sometimes I fear Philip Roth is correct in his assessment that none of us are finishing novels anymore. He’s famous for his recent assessment of our reading habits: “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore.” He claims “multiple screens” command our attention. And the only way to truly grasp a novel is to read it over a short period–not a year, as I have sometimes done.

We know Roth is right about the state of things, but I think he forgets who’s in charge here. Sure, multiple screens blather, cajole, blink at me every day, but I’ve got access to power button, remote, and all accompanying cords. HAL does a hard sell but I still know how to turn the thing off. I also have the power to physically remove myself from the room with the flat screen and find my office or bedroom and that waiting book. I’ve also returned to reading as the last thing I do at night. Sure, I’m tired, but that never stopped me as a child, and there’s nothing more peaceful than absorbing a few pages of well-written prose.

It’s in this spirit that I finished James Baldwin’s Another Country. This amazing book is worth its own post, so more on that coming soon and how authors explore an idea via frames and subplots.

Now I’m rereading Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, I’m reading Dance of the Happy Shades, an Alice Munro short story collection, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Yet I’m reading Ellen Foster a bit differently than the other works: I’m gobbling it in an hour here on a weekend, a half-hour there before bed, and should even finish it today, as I believe and agree with Roth is the way novels should be read.

Then I’ll return to it to make sense of it. Roth is right that novels need “the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence”–and one way I will give Another Country and Ellen Foster and other works of art their deserved attention is to use technology. Here’s where those “multiple screens” come in handy: I will blog about these works, book next to the keyboard, and study them in old-school manners of lit analysis. These exercises will hone my craft, sharpen my eye, and educate myself and perhaps a wider audience that there’s beautiful method behind the seemingly effortless prose.

Now I must leave this screen and the books behind because I have other modern, hectic things to do, but just as I have a craving for the charms of those multiple screens, I also crave the quiet and beauty that those reading moments allow me. Before this day is over, I will slip into the world Kaye Gibbons has created. I will bring my whole, quiet self, and I will be a better human for that focus and time alone with another human’s mind.

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