Slow reader

When I was a child, I thought speed reading was the thing to do. To cram all those wonders in, in almost no time at all: how wonderful it would be. I used to think about the champion readers immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, that sacred text of my pre-teen years. Anna Karenina in three hours! I was in awe of such genius.

But ever since I started reading as a writer—this coincided with the first sprouting of my facial hairs, though I doubt there’s an essential connection—I’ve read more slowly. It generally takes me about two weeks to get through a two-hundred-page novel, and about a month for bigger books. If I have a long languid summer, I might get through a six-hundred-pager or two.

I can read rapidly—I did pick up the skill of absorbing the gist of a paragraph at one glance—but I have no interest in doing so. Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.

Like those people who can take a sip of a soup and declare that it contains marjoram, basil, the faintest whiff of such and such a species of thyme and a hint of the earth the thyme was grown in, I am an oversensitive wreck. My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.

In extreme cases—Here is Where We Meet is a recent example—so involved am I with the thing that I read almost as slowly as the writer wrote, somewhat like that old Russian lady who told Uncle Gabo that she copied out every word ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude so she would be sure she hadn’t imagined it all.

Plot is not the most interesting part of a book for me, and this frees me to take pleasure in book fragments. The author’s literary DNA is on every page, at least for any author worth her salt. So what if I start at page 120 and I abandon the book on page 203? What an encounter those eighty-three pages have been. The most fleeting of affairs, consummated with the passion of a death-row conjugal visit, fervid and yet full of delay-tactics.

I read page 346 of The Count of Monte Cristo last weekend, and grew wings.

One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty. Naturally, I often found myself in the middle of a sentence at the page’s beginning or end. But these are the fragments from which a life is made, like those snatches of conversation one hears on the subway, which are free-floating pages from a much larger and more intricate narrative. I eventually left the bookshop, late late in the afternoon, and it was as though I had been to the world’s greatest luncheon. I was sozzled on literary wine and the voices of the twelve brilliant guests echoed in my head.

And then there are those books I read and put away and pick up again and put away again. Not because there’s anything wrong with the book, but simply because I see no reason to consume it all at once. For example, I’ve been reading The Human Stain since June 2004. This work’s riches embarrass me, as a blueberry muffin with too many blueberries would. It’s undeserved, it’s sheer dumb luck on the reader’s part. I’m only on page 190, but it’s already one of my favorite books. I know how the story ends, I know who dies, I know who kills whom, but this has nothing to do with what I’m looking for in the work. Ten pages at a time is about all I can handle of Philip Roth, when he’s at his best. Actually, sometimes it’s just the one athletic paragraph, so clean and in tune with its own song, that knocks me off my charted course. I replace the bookmark, put the volume back on the shelf, and, sighing, remortgage my pact with the Devil. He already has my soul, and now we’re down to bartering the household crockery. Long may I continue to live and read and ever slowly read.

As for Love in the Time of Cholera, don’t even get me started. I’ve read the first hundred pages of that book no less than three times, Saint Ursula is my witness. The first time was out-loud to my wife, three pages a night. Maybe or maybe not I will eventually read the rest; more likely, I’ll go back and read the first hundred again. As I’ve said, that’s between me and Mephistopheles. All I know is that what little of it I’ve already taken in has set a fire in my life that I am unable to douse.

I enjoyed the first two sentences of Lolita—filthy, brilliant—so much that I put it down. For fear of damaging myself. I haven’t found the courage to pick it up again.

Beowulf’s first word bitch-slapped me. I surrendered. And I can’t even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words.

I have abandoned that ecstatic fury in which one tears through an entire book over the course of nine hours, caffeine coursing through the veins, the wrists sore from page-turning, the eyes streaked with burst arterioles. No more of that for me, I’ve been saved from that particular variety of youthful indiscretion. But, worryingly, I seem to have recently picked up the nasty habit of reading novels right through to the end. As if getting to the end were the point. This is no joke: I’ve completed at least six books in the past three months. If these symptoms continue, I will consult my doctor. But for the most part, as I grow older, I’m less inclined to wolf down my nutrition, the opinions of the literature-police be damned. I think of prize judges and professional reviewers, those fifty-novels-a-year freaks of humanity, with a chuckle of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.

Life is too precious to waste on fast reading; I bet Neruda says something like that in his Memoirs, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

© 2007 Teju Cole. Used by permission. Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer, and Harvard’s first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice. His novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is also the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.

Poetry & sacred reading

Lectio divina is like reading poetry: we need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.

Michael Casey’s comparison of poetry and meditation (lectio divina being perhaps the most flexible and durable in the Christian tradition) in his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina got me to thinking. What else might poetry and devotional reading have in common besides the slower and more intuitive reading skills they demand?

Perhaps both poetry and meditation offer us the possibility of rediscovering our hearts. Sometimes, at a certain point in poetry reading or devotional reading, the rest of the mind is asked to stay in shallow waters while the heart – something both vague and vital – plays like a porpoise that has just rediscovered the open sea. The mind becomes aware of a certain distinction between it and the heart.

While we’re engaged in poetry or sacred reading, the uniqueness of a turn of phrase or the power of an image may have our attention for a while. At some point after these early motions, however, something strange may happen. We may move, however vaguely or imperceptibly, into a new realm. In the framework of lectio divina, we may move from lectio(reading) into the remaining three “moments”: meditatiooratio, and contemplatio. Our slow reading opens the door to a slow kingdom. Perhaps it is similar to becoming travelers to something like John Keats’s “realms of gold” – the world he discovers himself in while reading Homer.

I love Teju Cole’s occasional references to “the kingdom of poetry” along with the brief parables that accompany them at miracle speech, his poetry web site. Parables, koans, and failed analogies sometimes seem like the only kind of mental diplomacy possible between the realm we normally walk in and the kingdom of the heart.

Asked to disengage from the kingdom it normally functions in, the mind – the more efficient and confident (or confidently unconfident) part of us – may struggle. Perhaps this newly discovered kingdom that attracts our hearts might pose some kind of vague threat to something fundamental: our self-concept or our life’s work. If, as poet Billy Collins claims, poetry helps us discover who we are, then the part of us that doesn’t really exist may feel threatened. While our heart may herald a new kingdom’s arrival, another part of us may hang back like King Herod, sending the heart off for more particulars ostensibly so that we may later come and worship, too.

A comparison of poetry reading with meditation or sacred reading is limited, of course, and perhaps unhelpful to most. I haven’t done justice to either form of reading. For one thing, I’ve limited myself to one experience in reading poetry or devotional works. On the other hand, others may find a comparison unhelpful because there is nothing to compare. Someone inclined to either poetry or to devotional literature may find sufficient reading for any given moment spray-painted on an overpass.

Conversations with poems

Reading Poetry

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘poetry’? That it’s mostly written by dead white men about things that mean nothing to you in a way that makes them difficult to understand? I’m hoping to persuade you otherwise.

I first felt an inkling of what poetry could do for me at school. We were studying Philip Larkin, and I noticed the pleasure with which our teacher read ‘This Be The Verse’ with that shock word in the first line to describe exactly what our parents do to us. It felt grown-up, it felt naughty, it felt real. Larkin was saying something to me that was very specific – and I felt that I knew what he meant. This to me is what poetry is all about – it wants to communicate something specific to us, something important.

Reading a poem for the first time can be pleasurable – it might speak to us directly, we might get drawn in by a single phrase. But poems really come into their own when we get to know them, move past the small talk. Have you ever watched a film over and over until you know what’s coming next, and the jokes just get funnier? Or known the words to a song so well it seems as if the singer is speaking directly into your heart? This is what it’s like to carry a poem inside you whole.

There are poems that have stayed with me and become a part of how I make sense of the world. When I think of fathers, I think of Adrian Mitchell, and how he takes the hand of his three year old, Beattie, at the top of the stairs. As they descend he ‘. wish(es) silently/ That the stairs were endless.’ Louise Gluck describes a feeling that – ‘.fought like netted fish’ inside her – I know that feeling, and the poem labels it for me. Sometimes when I feel glad to be alive I think of Denise Levertov and her poem ‘Living’, ‘The fire in leaf and grass/ so green it seems/ each summer the last summer’.

Poems can also be taken as medicine. When I am needing to be reassured I read Christopher Logue who urges us to ‘be not too hard for life is short/ And nothing is given to man’. When I want to get closer to a certain type of grief I am feeling, a poem can help me to do this – as Stewart Conn faced a dying, breathless parent, he remembered the orange stains of fish under the ice in his garden pond and wished it was ‘simply a matter of smashing the ice and giving you air.’ He’s known true helplessness, and the more you read this poem the more you know it too.

And here’s the truth of it – poems ARE hard work. If you want a poem to truly inhabit you, to change you, then a quick read won’t do it. Poems demand to be struggled with a little. There are parts of some poems I didn’t understand for years, and the coming of meaning came like a shaft of light. And there are others that I still don’t understand – not completely – but the poem asks me to try, and gives me hints, and sometimes that’s enough. We don’t always understand everything in this world. It’s the trying that matters. I urge you to give poetry a chance – it wants you to listen to it, it has important things to tell you. And above all it wants you to listen to yourself.

All of the poems I’ve quoted above can be found in ‘Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times’ edited by Neil Astley. If you buy one book of poems this year (or ever) make it this one – and find a poem in it, any poem that catches a sliver of your interest on first reading. Read it twice every day for a week – first in your head and then aloud. After you’ve done this the poem will be a part of you, whether you want it to be or not. It will become alive.

Writing Poetry

I’ve been writing poetry for over 10 years now. I’ve spent more money on it that I’ve made, I’ve written hundreds of poems that have ended up in the bin, and I still feel like I am the beginning of my apprenticeship. So why do I continue to write? What keeps me going? how can I persuade you that writing is worth it?

What I love most about writing is the sheer pleasure of putting words together. There is nothing like fiddling around with a phrase until suddenly it rings like a bell – and says exactly what you’ve been trying to say. When Ted Hughes describes the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” it’s not just the meaning of the words that strike us, but the sound of them. Say them aloud and you’ll see what I mean. Swap smell for stink and the whole thing collapses.

Sometimes it’s a single word that makes a line sing. Mary Oliver’s stars “burn through the sheets of clouds” – they’re not just showing, we can feel the heat. And sometimes the words are all simple every-day words, but when you put them together in a certain order they become something magical. David Constantine leaves us in one of his poems with “Sleep. Do not let go my hand.”

As well as the joy of playing with language, I also love the fact that being a poet helps me to pay attention to the world around me. Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she’s right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their “by-products”, or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry, and more importantly, being a poet, keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don’t find is that writing is cathartic – that it helps me to “off-load” my emotions. I’m sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I’ve found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn’t make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of “closure”, especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

So how do you start to write? And how do you carry on? If you want to write seriously, I have three pieces of advice to get you started.

Firstly you’ll need plenty of raw materials to fashion into your poems. Your subject can (and must be) anything that interests you. Keeping a journal can give you a useful place to find seeds for poems. I’d also recommend that you buy a small notebook and carry it around with you everywhere. Use it to write down the things you notice that make you think “oh!”. It might be the colour of a flower or the way a man speaks to his son. Don’t forget to read too – read whatever you can – poetry, fiction, factual books.. think of it as feeding your muse.

My second tip would be to start practising the discipline of writing. As well as writing when you feel like it. Put specific time aside to write – at 5 o’clock on Thursdays, or first thing in the morning for ten minutes. Write during those times whether you feel like it or not. If you feel what you’ve written isn’t very good, then learn from it. What didn’t work? How could you improve it next time?

And the third, probably most important bit of advice would be to create a support network around you. Writing can be a lonely business and our muses need both encouragement and feedback so they can learn and carry on writing. There are huge amounts of support available on the internet and I’ve listed some places for you to start below. Nothing beats a face to face workshop group – try a couple locally until you find one that suits you. And make the most of other resources too – “how to write” books, courses, writing coaches and colleagues.

Copyright © 2006 Fiona Robyn. Used by permission. Fiona Robyn is a published novelistpsychotherapist & creativity coach. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Thing. She blogs at Writing Our Way Home.

Summer reading: the case for poetry

Summer reading is escape reading, and the archetypal summer reading is done on a blanket at the beach or by a pool while sipping a drink and lapsing in and out of consciousness. Traditional summer reading is light novels, romances and mysteries, generally – novels that permit us to get away from our daily world and that don’t make us think too hard. If one examines these purposes of summer reading, however, one may set aside light novels and pick up a couple of volumes of poetry.

Poetry, particularly short poetry, seems made for summer reading. A lot of poetry offers a faster and more complete escape than a light novel offers, and poetry often speaks to a part of us that is below the surface, a part of us that hides from the kind of analytical thinking from which vacations remove us.

You want to read while half-conscious? A lot of poetry is filled with dreamlike associations our conscious minds don’t usually make. Say you’re easing into a nap while reading a book. You catch yourself reading the same line over and over. Your tired mind dwells on a turn of phrase, or perhaps on a single word. This is disappointing if you’re reading a novel, but it’s perfect for poetry!

Consider the opening lines of “History,” a poem in Gary Soto’s New and Selected Poems, which we review this month and which I’ve read by the pool on two or three occasions this summer:

Grandma lit the stove.
Morning sunlight
Lengthened in spears
Across the linoleum floor.

In four quick lines — two short sentences – the reader knows our story’s time and place, she knows something of the sympathetic tone the poet takes to his subject, and she has some idea of the economic condition grandma lives in. The half-conscious state of the reader’s mind may then help her associate the lighting of the stove with the first light of day – an association that suggests that grandma’s simple action may mean more than it seems to on the surface.

August seems to burn off much of our moist, analytical thinking. What’s left is a slow, thick essence, a pattern of thinking removed from our ordinary world and an analeptic against that world’s ravages. August seems like the perfect month to give over to poetry.

Bedtime poetry

For me, poetry is best read before bed, perhaps because the best of it makes the kind of dreamlike connections my body is preparing for, though I never see coming. And – who knows? – poetry may make my mind supple enough to dream well.

Like a vivid dream, good poetry always surprises. Fragments of life and thought add up to more than they should. Multiple readings of a favorite poem bear up like a compelling, recurring dream.

Experiencing a dream and understanding it (if the latter is possible) are two different things. The same goes for experiencing and understanding poetry. Experiencing a poem is like waking up from a dream struck at first with an inexplicable impression or feeling. I’ve been somewhere emotionally I wasn’t expecting to go. Understanding a poem, on the other hand, is like trying to reconstruct a dream’s events in order to explain its force.

I can’t really know a poem I haven’t experienced. I may be only fending off a poem by carrying on about its alliteration and assonance and allusions. After experiencing a poem, though, I might have some unacademic questions: Why do these weak fragments pulsate on the page? How do these six lines reduce me to tears? What is the poem inviting me to see about myself?

Analyzing a poem without experiencing it is like sending a rocket to the moon without ever tasting green cheese. To quote Thomas Merton out of context: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” I can take poetry courses and still live without poetry and the part of me that poetry would feed.

In a sense, something understood is something diminished; something apprehended is something locked away. No one stays happily married by solving his wife. We infixed a flag in the moon, but we haven’t solved it. Indeed, the moon may help to keep us from solving and benighting ourselves.

Poetry is like the moon. It comes and goes. It shows up in different guises. It can guide us on a journey. It can spare light in a dark time. To live without poetry is to live in a moonless world, or to sleep in an atmosphere sucked clean of dreams.

The art of reading

Reading something for the second time is so much more satisfying than that first read-through. So many books withhold their full treasures from the first-time reader. Not that the first time can’t be special too, of course: surfaces are beautiful, and not to be taken lightly. During that first, heady encounter with a text, it is not merely the words that entrance us. The typefont, the design, the texture of the paper, the look and feel of covers and slipcovers, even the smell of the bindings – if new – or the patina that comes with good use: these too are manifest occasions for pleasure and surprise.

But few of us possess the skill as readers to avoid succumbing to that first-time excitement and finishing the book too soon. And to lay it aside at that point, never to return, would constitute not simply callousness but profound disrespect. Unless the book at hand be some cheap, manupulative thing, in which case even a single reading amounts to little more than “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” as Shakespeare once said about something else entirely.

As a reader, I must always aspire to do better next time and never become satisfied with my current techniques. If I know that my first time through a book tends to be a bit on the shallow side, I may change strategies and begin by lightly skimming through what look like the best spots, or re-visiting it at unexpected times and places, dipping into it just enough to whet my appetite for the first, prolonged session. But by then the first reading is really the second, or the third – it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer keeping score.

The kinds of books I enjoy most don’t necessarily need to be sampled in a set order, and sometimes I like to start with the last poem or chapter and work my way slowly toward the front. Or sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and work toward both ends, alternating between the front half and the back. Hence, I suppose, my disdain for tightly plotted novels that insist on rigid conformity with standard procedure. Plus, given my addictive personality, I hate to get sucked into a book like that because I know I won’t be able to sleep, eat or do much of anything else until it’s done. Ten or twenty hours later I’ll emerge from the novel as if from a parallel universe, shaking with adrenaline and ready to drop from exhaustion at the same time. After an experience like that, it will take me several days to undo the spell and fully return to my own, familiar weltanschauung.

There was a time in my youth when I thought that kind of full-throttle excitement was indispensable to the enjoyment of a book. But as I near the threshold of maturity I find myself craving a calmer and – I would argue – deeper form of immersion. This doesn’t rule out novels altogether, but it does definitely favor the second reading over the too-hasty first one. The plot once exposed for the artful contrivance that it is, one is free to take one’s time and relish the writing for its own sake. All goals have been abandoned aside from the most general: to advance in pleasure through insight – or is it vice versa? Unless one has some ghoulish analytic project to complete, some heartless application of the whips and restraints of academic theory, one can dwell within the garden of the text almost indefinitely for the colors and the scent alone. The mind explores gently and almost by instinct now, enfolded in a matrix where word, image and meaning are coterminous and virtually indistinguishable. The senses return to an almost Edenic innocence. Freed of judgements and distances, the patient reader at last attains a kind of high plateau, every pore fully open and flooded with the clearest, coolest light.


What the writer finally wants to save,
laboring into the white afternoon
at her kitchen table,
adrift in drafts,
ringed in scraps for
the compost, is just this savoring
of time’s luxuriant spread.

© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission. Dave Bonta is a poet, editor, and web publisher from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania. He’s the managing editor of qarrtsiluni and the author of Odes to Tools. He blogs at Via Negativa.