Tag Archives: reading


I came home from my first year at college, reeling from culture shock unrecognized until much later, to a job at the local natural history museum. I was in charge of their live reptile exhibit, a perennial summer attraction in Rockford, Illinois. By the summer of 1996, my third year running it, the live reptile exhibit had lost much of its novelty with the locals; the occasional lost family from Wisconsin wandered in, and every once in a while a VBS class would come to admire God’s scaly creations, but most of the time I was left alone with the reptiles in the museum, an old Victorian mansion built during times when Rockford had a more promising future ahead than its rust belt present.
Running the live reptile exhibit was not the nicest job I’ve worked at – biting, for example, has not been so much of a concern in my subsequent employment. But the museum was a couple of blocks away from the Rockford Public Library, and I was well stocked with reading material. Even to one as oblivious as myself it was clear that Infinite Jest had been the big book of the previous year; there were cloud-covered posters in the windows of Wordsworth’s. Over the summer I could catch up, I thought, and I made my way through the library’s copy of the book, then Girl with Curious Hair, then The Broom of the System, which I may have had to buy.
I was at a point in my life when I was impressionable, and Wallace made an impression on me. Part of what bowled me over about Infinite Jest was the sense of place embedded in the book. It’s a book about Boston, where I’d just spent the year; I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the city, but there were places that I recognized in the book. I don’t know that to that point I’d read anything about a place I knew: nobody writes books about Midwestern cities and towns, or if they do, they do it in such a way as to make it clear that all those places are entirely interchangeable. (I later accused Ben Marcus of writing the most honest book yet about how it is to grow up in the Midwest in The Age of Wire and String; he told me he’d never been there, but it sounded nice. So it goes.)
But that sense of connection, especially in something someone was writing now: that was important. Reading Wallace then was like reading Salinger on my own during high school, that same shock of recognition. Wallace’s writing exuded possibility to me in a way that others’ hadn’t. The was the knowledge that the world couldn’t be wrapped up nicely with a bow – obvious now, and an idea older than Tristram Shandy, but one that was surprising to me then. Helen DeWitt noted a Wallace interview where he explains his endnotes:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about . . . writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and . . . I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.

As a reader, I hear an echo in this of a speech by an artist in Gaddis’s The Recognitions, a book I’d immerse myself in no small part because of a comparison in a blurb on the back of Infinite Jest:

. . . Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility, and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all its dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just . . . sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.

Others will find their own echoes. Thinking about Wallace for the past few days, I find myself thinking more about he affected me as a reader than about anything particular in his writing. In the years after reading Infinite Jest, I kept finding myself noticing things that Wallace had borrowed from others, which came almost as little winks – realizing that Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, had been appropriated almost wholesale from Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos, recognizing with hindsight that the subplot about The Entertainment was a reworking of Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge, noticing, in short, that Wallace had been in every room I entered before me. Infinite Jest itself wasn’t really a book that I went back to, though I did eventually buy my own copy. I’d internalized it, and found the book had become a part of myself, something so basic that I found myself presuming that everyone interesting around me must have also read it. (This is a faulty assumption that would repeat: later, I’d catch myself thinking that everyone must have read Proust, that life without Proust was inconceivable.) I had been changed. Part of the reason I didn’t return to Infinite Jest was a fear that something so important wouldn’t be the same – returning to Salinger, I’d found his characters cloying and affected, coming off like the creations of a creepy old man. The books hadn’t changed, but I had.
For my money, Wallace’s masterpiece was “The Suffering Channel,” the last novella in Oblivion, which harrowingly explores a universal problem, “the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance” through the lens of the celebrity-entertainment complex. (It is, for what it’s worth, a piece that I have been able to go back to repeatedly.) In a characteristic touch, a sinister production company has the Portuguese motto A consciência é o pesadelo da natureza. A character translates this as “consciousness is nature’s nightmare.” This is only half accurate, and I think it’s interesting what Wallace leaves out: the Portuguese consciência, like the Italian coscienza (famously used in the title of Svevo’s book), can mean both consciousness and conscience. Conscience is also nature’s nightmare; existence is always a moral issue, an idea that works its way through all of Wallace’s work.
I can’t claim that I knew Wallace – I met him in passing at a book signing, where he was kind and more generous than he needed to be. But certainly there’s a sense of kinship: to realize that you’re reading the same books that a writer once read. The book is Kafka’s axe to smash the frozen sea inside of us: to read can be to recognize that one is not alone in the world, to find yourself reflected in another’s language. The book Wallace signed for me I lost years ago, abandoned in storage above a carpet factory in Somerville; these things happen, and they’re not worth dwelling upon. But when I heard the news of Wallace’s death – late Saturday night, at the drunken end of an enjoyable wedding – it felt like I’d lost a part of myself. Part of that reaction is aleatory: Wallace’s writing found me at the right time. But it’s not entirely chance: so much of the power of language is its ability to transcend the body, to transcend the book.

reading as collective enterprise

In this excerpt from an interview with Michael Silverblatt, the host of KCRW’s Bookworm, Junot Díaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao articulates an aspect of the communal nature of books that isn’t often brought up: he argues that we learn to read communally, and that this isn’t necessarily a mode of reading that we should move away from. Here’s the audio – there’s a fervor to Díaz’s argument that doesn’t come off in a straight transcription:

(This is an excerpt; the full version can be downloaded from the Bookworm web site.) For those who can’t listen, a quick synopsis: Silverblatt, looking at the way Díaz uses science fiction and diaspora culture in his novel, sees a similarity to how James Joyce uses Dublin in Ulysses, as a lens through which to scry the world; in Oscar Wao bits of sci-fi and pop culture become a “vast encyclopedia of the world”; the universe reveals itself in particular. Díaz then takes that idea and runs with it: as a reader, he sees his own book as a single part of an “enormous conversation of books”:

Nobody learns to read outside of a collective. We forget – because we read and we read alone – we forget that we learn to read collectively. We learn with our peers, and a teacher teaches us. . . . When you read a book – and especially like this book, where there’s gonna be Spanish, there’s gonna be historical references, there’s gonna be nerdish, as they say, forget the elvish, the nerdish, there’s gonna be fanboy stuff, there’s gonna be talk about Morgoth, about dark side, about John Brunner’s science fiction books, about Asimov, about Bova, about Andre Norton, about E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman, you know all this weird esoteric stuff, amongst all these Dominican references, Caribbean references, urban black American references, all this nerd talk, all this kind of hip “we went to college” speak – the reason that’s all there in one place is the same reason that reading is a collective enterprise. When we did not know a word when we were young and learning, we would ask someone. We forgot – I think many of us forget – that praxis, that fundamental praxis. What I want is for people to read and remember that reading, while we may practice it alone, in solitude, it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange . . . .

the really modern reader

Readers of this blog will probably find much of interest in Sucking on Words, a new documentary on conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith, as I’ve noted before, is the wizard behind the curtain at ubu.com; this documentary, by Simon Morris, focuses on his work as a conceptual poet. Like much conceptual art, Goldsmith’s work tends to make many sputteringly angry; as he himself readily admits in the film, the idea of reading it can be superior to the act of reading it, and the exploration of his work in this documentary might be the best introduction to it that’s available.
A typical Goldsmith piece is to take all the text of a day’s edition of The New York Times – all of it, from the first ad to the last – and to put it into a standard book format: viewed this way, the daily paper has the heft of a typical novel. It becomes apparent from this that when we talk about “reading” a day’s New York Times, we really only mean reading a tiny subsection of the actual text in the paper. Our act of reading the paper is as much an act of ignoring. (Nor is this limited to print media; taking a typical page on the online Times, one notes that of the 963 words on the page, only 589 are the article proper: our reading of an article online entails ignoring 2/5 of the words. This quick count pays no attention to words in images, which would send the ignored quotient higher.)
Goldsmith starts from the proposition that there’s enough language in the world already. Like many in the digital age, he’s trying to find ways to make sense of it all; in a sense, he’s creating visualizations.

a thought experiment: reading in parallel

I recently picked up Amiri Baraka’s The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, as I’d been curious about the trajectory of the life of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a man who pops up in interesting places. His autobiography is a curious work: for reasons that are unclear to me as a casual reader, names in certain sections of his life have been changed. His first wife, née Hettie Cohen, becomes Nellie Kohn. Yugen, the magazine they started together, becomes Zazen; the Partisan Review becomes The Sectarian Review. As a casual reader, the reasons for these discrepancies are unclear, but they were interesting enough to me that I picked up How I Became Hettie Jones, his first wife’s version of her life. She presents many of the same scenes Baraka narrates, with her own spin on events, a difference that might not be unexpected in the narration of a divorced couple.
The changes in names are an extreme example, but the basic situation is not one that uncommon in how we read: two books share the same subject matter but differ in particulars. As noted, I read the two books in series as a casual reader, but I found myself wishing there were some way to visualize the linkages or correspondences between the books. One could write in the margins of Baraka’s description of a party “cf. Jones pp. 56–57” to point out Hettie Jones’s version of events, but it strikes me that electronic representations of a book could do this better. What I’d like to see, though, isn’t something as simple as a hyperlink; these links should point both ways automatically. Different kinds of links – showing, for example, similarities and differences – might help. Presenting the texts side by side seems obvious; lines could be drawn between the texts. The problem could be expanded: consider comparing and contrasting a Harry Potter book with its film version.
This isn’t an especially complex reading behavior at all: we compare texts (of different sorts) all the time. We look at, for example, how Rudolph Giuliani reads the statistics on survival of prostate cancer and how the New York Times reads the same statistics. Why aren’t there online reading tools that acknowledge this as a problem?

an encyclopedia in my pocket

A while back – last March – there was a great deal of excitement over Wikipodia, an open source project to install Wikipedia on an iPod. Wanting a portable Wikipedia, I installed Linux on my brand new video iPod, a necessary prerequisite, but was disappointed to discover that Wikipodia only worked on older iPods with smaller screens. I’ve waited for an update to Wikipodia since then, but the project seems to have gone dark. Probably Wikipodia wouldn’t have been an ideal solution anyway: it requires you to reboot your iPod into Linux whenever you want to look at Wikipedia. You could have an iPod to listen to music or a Wikipedia to read, but not both at the same time.

ipodwikipedia.jpgBut a partial fulfillment for my desire to have a portable Wikipedia has come along: Matt Swann has posted a script that puts some of the Wikipedia on an iPod, in iPod Notes format. While it’s much simpler than installing a new operating system on your iPod, it’s still not for everybody – it requires using the OS X command line, although there’s an Automator-based version that’s a bit simpler. (PC versions would seem to be available as well, though I don’t know anything about them – check the comments here.) If you’re willing to take the plunge, you can feed the script a page from Wikipedia and it will start filling up your iPod Notes directory with that page and all the pages linked from it. I started from the entry for book; the script downloaded this, then it downloaded the entries for paper, parchment, page, and so on. When it finished those, it downloads all the pages linked from the linked pages, and it keeps doing this until it runs out of space: regardless of iPod size, you can only have 1000 notes in the Notes directory. This doesn’t meant that you get 1000 articles. Because each iPod note can only be 4 kb long, entries that are longer than 4000 characters are split into multiple notes; thus, I wound up with only 216 entries.

Though 216 entries is a tiny subset of Wikipedia, it’s still an interesting experience having a chunk of an encyclopedia in your pocket. What I find most captivating about approaching Wikipedia this was is that I found myself browsing interesting sounding articles rather than searching them directly. The iPod doesn’t have much input functionality: while you can scroll through the list of entries, you can’t search for a subject, as you usually would. (And with only 216 entries, searching would be of limited utility at best. The Wikipodia project promises full text searching, though text entry is a difficult proposition when you only have five keys to type with.) While you can scroll through the list of entries to find something that looks interesting, you’re likely to get sidetracked by something along the way. So you browse.

monotyping.jpgTo my mind, browsing is one of the primary virtues of a print encyclopedia: the arbitrary logic of alphabetization makes for a serendipitous reading experience, and you often come away from a print encyclopedia having read something in a nearby article that you didn’t intend to read. This is something that’s generally lost with online reference works: links between articles are supposed to make logical sense. This is also a reflection of our reading behavior: if I search for “book” in Wikipedia, I’m probably looking for something in particular. If I’m interested in book conservation issues, I might click on the link for slow fires. If I’m interested in some other area related to books – how to make vellum, for example – I almost certainly wouldn’t. Instead I’d click on the vellum link and keep looking from there. We tend to be goal-directed when we using Wikipedia online: it’s like going to a library and finding the specific book you want. Wandering in a library is an equally valid behavior: that’s what happens here.

Because you’re not looking for a particular piece of information, you do find yourself reading in a different way. Search-based reading is a different style of reading than browsing, which is slower and more casual. This has a downside when applied to Wikipedia: the often atrocious style is more glaring when you’re reading for pleasure rather than reading for information. And an offline Wikipedia inhibits some of the new reading habits Wikipedia encourages. I caught myself wondering how biased the declarations of the Shāhnāma‘s originality w/r/t other national epics were; without recourse to page histories and talk pages I’m left to wonder until I find myself with an Internet connection.

book-bookwhite.jpgThe experience of reading Wikipedia this way isn’t perfect: many links don’t work, and some articles seem to arbitrarily end, some in mid-sentence, some in mid-word. You also realize how many links in Wikipedia aren’t useful at all. If I’m interested in books as a concept, I’m probably not interested in 1907 as a concept, though that is the year that Marc Aurel Stein found The Diamond Sutra, the oldest known block-printed book. Marc Aurel Stein or The Diamond Sutra might be interesting subjects to a book-inclined browser; 1907 isn’t as likely. What you get on your iPod is an arbitrary selection. But there’s something very pleasant about this: it’s nice to have the chance to learn about both Neferirkare Kakai and the Rule of St. Benedict on the subway.