The uncommon reader

What makes an exceptional reader (aka, how to read a book in the best possible way)

  ( words)

In 2015, the New York Society Library held an exposition of annotations made in books from their special collections over five centuries. The special collections includes rare books that are not stacked on the shelves—first editions, manuscripts, and really old books. Most annotations are in the form of notes in the margins of these texts and some even include corrections to the text. I don’t know about you, but the knowledge that defiling a book in this way was common practice in olden days is strangely liberating. I have always felt that margins were intended for marginalia, but I’m more firmly immured in the genteel camp of non-defacers. Such was not the case a few centuries removed from ours. Books were meticulously engraved by their readers and served as the original comments section. Umberto Eco tells us of the coterie of Benedictine Monks who assiduously annotate ancient texts with illustrations, one in particular that was so incredibly small that it would fit into the palm of the hand.”

The entire margins of the book were invaded by minuscule forms that generated one another, as if by natural expansion, from the terminal scrolls of the splendidly drawn letters: sea sirens, stags in flight, chimeras, armless human torsos that emerged like slugs from the very body of the verses. At one point, as if to continue the triple Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” repeated on three different lines, you saw three ferocious figures with human heads, two of which were bent, one downward and one upward, to join in a kiss you would not have hesitated to call immodest if you were not persuaded that a profound, even if not evident, spiritual meaning must surely have justified that illustration at that point.The name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (1983)

Edgar Allen Poe made sure that, in selecting his book, that it had ample margin” so as to afford him the facility of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” Because, he posits, In marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit”. Coleridge was another sedulous marginalist who used abbreviations and shorthand to mark a response to passages in a book (such as L.M. for ludicrous metaphor, N for nonsense, and so on). Hieroglyphics and shorthand were also popular forms of highlighting notable sections of text for Darwin and, of course, who can forget the mysterious manicule, dating form the time of Petrarch (circa 1350).

What about the very act of reading? How we read is very different from our ancestors in a world centuries removed from our own. In fact, silent reading is a more recent phenomenon than we think: in his Confessions Saint Augustine (396 — 430 AD) says of the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, that when he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” This implies that reading was perhaps not as private and intimate in the ancient world as it is today. The only remnants of this practice is retained in reading poetry, which is only appreciated when we read aloud. The pleasure in the words is in sounding them with the lips. And we can concur with Fry that Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.” He also suggests that if we’re in a public place where reading aloud may embarrass us (which sadly, is true of most public places these days—think about the injunction to silence in public libraries in contrast to those in Saint Augustin’s time), we should read aloud inside” ourselves, and if possible, moving your lips”.

Reading can also be a bookmark into the past. In his essay On Reading, Proust conjures up images of childhood reading that we can all identify with: carefree days lingering under the sun, but frequently interrupted by the demands of friends and family, and reading has graven into us such happy memories of these things (memories much more valuable to us now than what we were reading with such passion at the time) that if, today, we happen to leaf through the pages of these books of the past, it is only because they are the sole calendars we have left of those bygone days, and we turn their pages in the hope of seeing reflected there the houses and lakes which are no more.” Life is what happens to us between the pages, and reading, like conversation, consists of receiving another’s thoughts while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight”.

Good reading is nearly as rare as good writing. I believe that they are both done usually by the same persons.Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters to a Friend

But apart from marginalia and the revelry of reading, what do the best writers have to teach us about reading? Virginia Woolf was one of those uncommon readers who took copious notes of everything she read, but especially when she would sit down to do her serious reading”, which would yield her critical essays and compositions. To read with pen and notebook was a habit she inculcated during her 30 year association with Bruce Richmond, writing for the Times Literary Supplement. No matter what the subject, no matter how long or short the piece, she sought out the relevant letters and diaries, biographies and autobiographies, histories and criticism—both contemporary and modern—that would place the work and its author in their literary and cultural contexts. In her essay How Should One Read a Book? she poses us a little experiment to help us understand the dangers and difficulties of words.”

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you — how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read a Book?

The best writers readers read and re-read parts of books, chasing the essence of an idea, following a theme, or linking their thoughts into a coherent whole. Saul Bellows, in his quest to understand the personal side of ageing, fanatically studied fictional exemplars of old age from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky.

I had, as a fanatical or enrage reader, studied over many decades gallery after gallery of old men in novels and plays and I thought I knew all about them. But to be one is full of surprises. Let me see: There is Oedipus at Colonus, there is the old sculptor of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, there is, of course, King Lear, and also Duncanin Macbeth and Polonius in Hamlet, and there are Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs - the repulsive and unkillable old, there is old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, there is Father Zossima in The Brothers K, there is Gerontion, and Yeats in his final years. But all of this business about crabbed age and youth tells you absolutely nothing about your own self. I shall leave the subject there. I can’t even begin to say what it’s really like. Saul Bellows in a letter to James Wood from Saul Bellows Letters, Penguin Books

The uncommon reader enters into a communion with the writer, challenging his opinions and assumptions or sympathising with his views. Good readers also read with an end in view. This may not culminate with any writing of their own, but their reading is directed towards furnishing a certain gestalt; in reaching a unity of experience. They have a dozen or less items of interest at the back of their minds and their minds gravitate towards all those threads, no matter how fine or diaphanous, that they can eventually spin together into a fabric. And finally, good readers the emotional undercurrent that binds their personal experiences to the page and keenly explore ways of reading that work for them, whether that be reading aloud or marking up their thoughts directly in the pages of their books.

In issue #2 of writing it, Reading with aim and purpose, and with an end in view, I explore in depth the most effective ways of reading and note-taking using a few modern tools to transcribe another’s thoughts into one’s own and linking new thought to old ones.