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April 28th, 2020
Every sentence is a puzzle. It doesn’t feel like this because we are so adept to understanding the code. But think back to when you were learning how to read. At first the symbols were mysterious, and just by looking at them, our parents could evoke stories. It was a kind of magic. Then we struggled to puzzle out the words as we learned, and slowly the lockbox of each sentence cracked open to reveal a hidden meaning.
Then a problem emerges. We come to think we’ve learned how to read, as though the skill has a level of competence that signals total completion. But as with many things, there exist layers of ability and benefit beyond mere competence. After we can read well enough to puzzle out the meaning of unfamiliar words from context alone, the advancement of ability no longer pertains to the raw mechanics of language, that of words, their definitions and the way they relate to others in a sentence to create a cohesive statement. After we have gained a fluid competence with the mechanics of language – and this is where it is generally declared that someone knows how to read – the task for an individual to become a better reader has to do with perspective. The mechanics of language is merely the medium of reading, and competence is but the first step.
Just because a toddler learns how to walk doesn’t mean they understand where they should go. The art of reading has less to do with words on a page as much as it pertains to the ability of the mind to inhabit a range of perspectives, and specifically, the perspective of the writer. The art of reading is in some sense the art of imagination.
Just as it’s easy to react to someone’s opinion with your own, it’s easy to grow bored and unimpressed with a piece of writing. What is more impressive on the part of the listener, or the reader, is the ability to inhabit the mind of the speaker or the mind of the writer.
We are poor listeners because we think hearing equates with listening. Likewise, we assume there is nothing more to be gained simply because it’s possible to read and understand what’s on the page.
We’re all vaguely aware of the possibility and large probability that we’ve often spoken before truly listening and understanding. Why should it be any different with reading? Especially when a writer has put in more thought, time, energy and investment into laying thoughts down in such a laborious manner.
We rattle off books worth of talking every year, but how many actually take the time to write an actual book? Just by dint of difficulty we should take what is written more seriously than what is said. If someone has taken the time, then we can be sure that it meant that much to at least one person and with the hope that it might matter to more. Most talk arises just so we can hear the sound of our own existence.
In lieu of this breakpoint in the ability to read, many writers end up pandering to the average reader who has developed little beyond a knowledge and know-how of the mere mechanics of language. This is a race to the bottom – a regression to the mean - as writers try to appeal to the largest number of people, the writing is forced to become diluted, and by default: mediocre.
It’s good in moderation but a fallacy in the extreme, grafted from the betty business motto that the customer is always right. While that might be true for ephemeral products that are produced to generate a business and a profit, it would be shot-sighted in the least to say that such a motto applies to something like writing, which can effectively last forever. Dear writers, you aren’t simply writing for the current hoi polloi that you find yourself surrounded by, your audience extends from the billions that exist today to all future generations. Your audience is effectively infinite. So why cater to the opinion of a few around you who currently spout the need for simple, short, clear, concise and potentially plain?
Good writing urges the reader to level up their game as a reader. Some very good writing can be downright obnoxious, but such noxious effect is double-edged in it’s effect, like hormesis, it’s uncomfortable, but we benefit from that very discomfort. To crack a dictionary at the very least, and at most, to think in a way we’ve never considered before. Is the gift any less beneficial if you have to work for it a little? Certainly not, which explains why literary types will proudly attest to having read a book like Ulysses, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, or Paradise Lost. Some how the reading of such tomes feels like an accomplishment in it’s own right. While this is certainly not true in all cases, it most definitely is in some. The difference of course is whether a person has simply spent time looking at each and every word of such large books in order, or if they actually understood the levels of meaning that are reverberating through the text? Subtext, by default is a second perspective, and good writing begs the question of the reader: how agile is your perspective? Will you get lost in the rabbit hole or are you up for the adventure?
Writers are lured by the zen-like simplicity of aphorisms, metaphors, as though it might be possible for all great ideas to be phrased simply enough for any dullard to understand and thereby expand readership, the newsletter, views, and retweets. Great writing can certainly dabble in it’s fair share of such simplicity. All of this is not to say that there isn’t immense benefit in trimming and simplifying writing. It is a valuable exercise, but again, taken to an extreme, it risks a regression to an uninteresting mean.
Great writers are first great readers, but we never see this part of the process. We don’t see the many and various levels upon which their mind is interacting with the text, but to be sure, there is nothing simple and straight forward about the way a great writer approaches a piece of reading. By such time, there are a multitude of perspectives that are taking part, like an entire chorus of judges, students, characters and thinkers.
How do you think of reading? Do you expect to be spoon fed like an infant? Or have you developed the skill to smell out more meaning and hunt around for it? This of course begs no offense for those who do prefer to be spoon fed their reading in forms that are effortless to digest. Some reading is entertainment, and that’s fine, but we should not confuse ‘some reading’ for the entire medium. This piece of writing only begs for such people’s respectful silence when faced with something that is perhaps beyond their ability, or at the very least, a little complex. The written thought is almost certainly worth more than a reader’s lack of attention. A written sentence, by default requires more attention to produce than it does to consume.
Perhaps this is why some great writers grow so cryptic, like James Joyce. The coyness of such writing is perhaps born out of a frustration with vapid consumption. It’s parroted often today: create more than you consume. It’s good advice not just because it seems to lead to better mental health, but someone who creates is imbued with a respect for the creation of others. Such creators are quicker to understand the effort, attention and thoughtfulness that went into the production of some novel work.
The point of reading is at core the same as writing: to expand perspective. Both require work. If a reader fails to understand, there’s only a small chance the writing is actually gibberish. The reader who is quick to throw up their hands or become distracted by something else only does a disservice to themselves.
Even poor writing, or a rough draft offers enormous opportunity for a reader. Just as the writer is struggling to figure out what they mean to say, so too can the reader – so must the reader. A great reader may even understand more than the writer can convey, like completing a sentence for a lover stuck on words. Instead of calling something garbage, the great reader turns into the teacher, editor and student, and seeks to further themselves by trying to understand why it’s garbage, and what the writer actually meant.
If readers are treated like coddled toddlers, than the audience for such writing will end up being like coddled toddlers, seemingly lazy due to their inability, mouth open, waiting for the spoon.
A great reader who understands there is an art to their task wants the challenge. But not everyone is an artist, and that’s fine. This piece of writing merely begs any and every reader to pause before laying down a verdict: there may be more going on than you realize. This happens in real life all the time. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Considering art imitates life, would it be any surprise that there’s more going on than you realize with the words right under your nose?
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