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"I think of reading as a skill and an art... The idea we're given of reading is that the model of a reader is a person watching a film, or watching television, so the greatest principle is "I should sit here and I should be entertained,". And the more classic model (which has been completely taken away) is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician sits at a piano, has a piece of music (which is the work) made by somebody they don't know, who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist, and that the artist gives you. That's an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral but it's completely true." Zadie Smith

Not exaggerating--I've probably watched every episode of The Sopranos 30 times. I can recite the entire dialogic Pulp Fiction script from memory, on command. I've paid to see two football films, the almost B-quality Necessary Roughness starring Sinbad and Scott Bakula, and the James Van Der Beekian heart-grabber Varsity Blues, 4 times each, in theaters, alone, as in by myself. These are oddly embarassing confessions.

When I was about 9yo, my father, taken under by a wave of parental dissonance charactarized either by a sort of fiendish experimentation in the exposure of children to vulgarity, or simply by an acute lack of common sense, took me to see Eddie Murphy, Raw at the MegaPlex. I distinctly remember the Black man at the ticket counter telling my dad in a throaty, vaguely pleading tone: "Language a little hard on the children man," as he slid our stubs across the counter. I don't remember much of the movie, but I do recall dinner the following evening--my mother and father to either side of me, my 4yo sister directly across, and during a moment of silence I guess I said "Hey Mom, pass the motherfuckin' peas." Now, I don't exactly remember saying that, but I did say something; and yesterday-like in memorial resolution is the instantaneous plang of silver to ceremic that occured when my mother dropped her fork to her plate, and the look she gave my father upon doing so, that was equal parts "What the hell did you do to my baby?" and "I'm going to murder you,", and my father's spazmodic holding in of laughter coupled with delightful "I'm in trouble now" facial configuration.

It's doubtful any family in the history of families has held such a collective memory as this sparked by a novel, or any book, other than perhaps The Bible. The relationship we have with fiction is inexorably personal. As much as we'd like to share whatever it was that made us cry, erected our nascent ability to forgive, or in a strange way provided us the sort of comfort that can only come from the deepest, purest kind of friendship, within the 400-page, paper-made rectagular cuboid we've been coddling the past few weeks, we really... just... can't. The only thing we can do is hand you the cuboid, hope you get from it the same experience we did.

Another decent bet, I'd argue, is that since the invention of the television no reader (outside academia) has spent ~1000 hours processing and reprocessing the content of a short story collection. Things like the 6 seasons of The Sopranos have made sure of that. While listening to a piece of beautiful music may or may not be more pleasurable than playing that piece of music, it is certainly less hard work; and if there's anything the last 60 years have taught us about ourselves it's that we prefer to have pleasure granted us as oppossed to doing something pleasurable ourselves, even if we know that this is an inferior investment with regard to our soul's longterm health. We're just too damn tired. Too damn busy. Too damn entertained.

Oversimplification? Sure. But you get the overall point. The question is: Where does this leave us as readers? The answer is probably: In the shithouse.

I have conversations with Protagonize members about what the act of reading means to them, and about what they value and hope to take away from the time they spend with a book or passage of text, and their answers (or lack of answers) invariably make me feel either like a dinosaur, or like the only sane person in a room full or hysterics (which would, by definition, make me the crazy one).

The introduction of evaluative judgement to the way in which one reads fiction is a delicate thing to consider. Afterall, people read for different reasons. The reader of Watchmen, or Mad Magazine, or the latest chicklit novel, is not reading for the same reasons as the guy who just can't seem to put down The Complete Stories of Kafka, or The Gold Bug Variations. If we were to lock these two different breeds of readers in a room, imagine what they might say to one another:

Literary Snob: Why do you read that commericial crap? Why not just watch a movie or TV?

Casual Crap-Monger: Because even though the kind of art I consume is contrived and commercial-driven, reading it is still better than watching it on television. It's more personal and imagination-engaging this way.

Literary: Uhh... Yeah but I know more words than you.

Casual: Yeah but can you employ them regularly in casual conversation?

Literary: Uhh... My dad can beat up your dad?

Casual: No he can't. My dad was a roofer in Detroit for 39 years. Your dad is a professor of 18th century Russian literature at a community college in Maine.

(silence)

Literary: That crap you read is crap! Crap I say!

Not pretty. Nothing really gets accomplished there. It's like shackling a left-wing nut to a NeoCon and expecting them to agree to disagree. Politics always gets in the way.

But let's strip away all the politics, the genre-splicing, and odd tendency for peoples to attach the brands of what they consume to their own personal representations and to that of others. Let's just look at language.

Let's take a clump of, say, 200k words of fiction. This clump may or may not be entertaining. It may or may not be structurally complex. Its syntax may or may not be more difficult than average to process. What it indubitably contains, or rather what can uncontroversially be extracted from it via reading, is some humanistically redemptive substance. A gift. Something beyond celeverness, beyond humor, beyond lush description or impeccible grammar--beyond what we think of as the qualities of effective writing, good writing. Something for YOU. A spark. Something that applies cables to both ventricles and gives your heart a jump, as it were (see how gooey this can get?).

Now let's pluck a reader from the Protagonize reader-pool at random. We put him or her on front of this language clump. Does s/he extract the gift? Is s/he aware there is a gift there to be gotten? Does s/he understand how to go about recieving this gift?

If we return to the Z. Smith idea of reading being a skill and an art, we're confronted with the problem that inferior reading means an inferior reading experience. And if we believe that literature is one of the things that helps us as individuals feel better, and thereby behave better in the world, we can then see how perpetually underdeveloped / miseducated /dis-educated readers are a kind of quiet tragety for us all.

Bad reading can always be dismissed as mere personal preference: "I don't read that way" or "That's not how I like it" or "It's too long and hard" (haha, too long and hard). But there's more to reading than being entertained, and it would behoove the bad reader to understand that it may be his own distaste for a certain piece of writing may be a direct result of the fact that what he's bringing to the table as a reader just isn't good enough. It takes more than literacy + vocabulary + your own personal taste. It's a lot like a friendship. It takes emotional sensitivity, patience, the willingness to accept defect as part of doing business. Maybe there are some people you don't want to be friends with. Maybe there are others you were once close to but have drifted from since. Maybe there are individuals whom you once despised, that suddenly seem to comprehend you better than anyone could at this moment. This is what reading is. What ones relationships to books and their authors can be. It just takes a bit of work.

At that, I'll let Richard Powers have the last word:

"The fairy story that underwrites the act of reading: Somehow you, a reader, who will never meet the sensibility behind this creation, can somehow meet [that sensibility] in the act of reading the words. I think of reading as a kind of secular prayer. Something that happens withdrawn from the world, in a conversation that you hold with someone else's narration of the world that is not yours. Do we [author and reader] actually meet? That depends on what you mean by actual."

The End

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