All books are coloring books

[Read my interview with the author of The Art of Reading, Robert J. Ray, here.]

I still color. I have sixteen crayons and I mark up my best books. When I buy used books, I prefer ones with lots of highlighting and margin notes. Despite these upgrades, such books are usually cheaper. (I’ve never found a book with crayon marks. Am I the only one who never got over coloring books?)

When I borrow a book, I mark it up and buy the owner a new one. If I give the same copy back, it was a bad book. If I never give it back, new or used, it was really bad, and the owner never bothers me about it.

For me, a book is like a sports telecast. The author (or narrator) is the pay-by-play guy and I provide the color commentary. Please don’t think I spend the whole book running my mouth. Paragraphs, even a page or two, may go by without a mark. Then something happens. They don’t pay me to be silent.

Sadly, like the bromides belched out by television’s ex-jocks, my commentary became indiscriminate and predictable some time ago. Why should I have expected otherwise? Where I grew up, crayons disappeared from the classroom after fourth grade and actual coloring instruction ended with Kindergarten. I wasn’t taught coloring again until my freshman year of college.

I reread my freshman composition textbook this year, and it helped. The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing takes marking in books to a new level. By page seven, the book has copied out a single paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden seven times (if one includes the cover) and has marked the paragraph with ovals, rectangles and lines in four different colors. The Art of Reading sucks out all the paragraph’s marrow, to use a Walden metaphor. The result is a satisfying mess, and something greater than bromides emerges.

The Rays get their admissions out of the way early. The book begins: “It is possible to read carefully without marking up your book. It is also possible to mark every word you read and gain nothing from it.” Marking a book won’t make understanding drop from the book’s tree, but it becomes a fruitful enterprise if the marks help one discover patterns. Patterns is the key to reading, the Rays believe. As E. M. Forster said, “Only connect.”

[bookk cover]Any writing – a book, an essay, a letter, or a poem – gives up its secrets with its patterns. A reader starts by marking content words, then pronouns, verbs, and rhetorical patterns. Next he connects his marks, first with a crayon (or pen, if you wish) and then mentally in conjunction with a passage’s other content. Some of the patterns eventually reveal style and meaning.

“This is obviously not a technique for speed reading,” the Rays allow. They do not advocate such close reading of an entire book, though. The Rays suggest the reader apply herself to this technique in passages at the beginning of a book. “…[O]nce you have found a writer’s characteristic language patterns, you should find the reading smoother and quicker.”

As the book’s title suggests, the Rays link close reading to writing. The Rays’ student learns to write by close imitation of a good writer’s style. After picking apart short passages from the likes of Jonathan Swift, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, a student tries to write like them. What becomes comfortable and authentic becomes part of the student’s emerging style.

Patterns lead to style and style leads to meaning, but meaning is not the end, the Rays believe. Meaning by itself is ephemeral as a flower clipped from its stem and roots. Good literature blooms anew for each comer, and lives on to flower differently for different ages. As The Art of Reading puts it:

The best prose is that which is so thoroughly at one with what it expresses that one sentence generates another. The thoughts, so called, have their existence in the turn of a phrase and cannot be extricated from it.

Because there is no disembodied truth, literature lives and so does the slow reader.


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