On Reading

November, 2012

On Reading

Johannah Rodgers

I have been thinking a lot lately about reading:  about how much I love reading and how pleasurable it is, not just as a pasttime or for entertainment–though these are important parts of it as well–but as something more significant and ultimately more important than entertainment.  You must read with desire, I’ve written, as has Roland Barthes long before me.  I keep turning to Barthes in my quest to understand more about reading, why it is so important to me, and how I might share this desire, this pleasure with my students.  I have not yet located any one piece of writing by Barthes that succinctly communicates this, which is part of the reason that I am writing this now.  

 

In an age of widespread access to information, we are all reading a lot.  But we are reading differently.  We are also experiencing time differently.  I think about myself and all of the time I once had to read.  Do people have that kind of time anymore?  They could, in theory, but perhaps they simply don’t.  I still have the time, but I use it differently.  I can now look at twenty books at a time in the space of an afternoon on Google Books.  Reading technologies are not new, of course, and it is worth thinking about the bookwheel and the reading easel as some examples of reading technologies from another time.  (Perhaps just as much as time and space are essential to understanding novels, the time and space of reading itself is important.  Many literary theorists have written about the time of reading and its relationships with narrative time, but we are still figuring out how the time and space of reading change with changes in actual time.)    

 

In my studies of reading and in my thinking about teaching writing, I’ve come to learn that writing well really is–at least in part–a question of reading well.  It is also about reading a lot.  It is about developing a fluency in reading.  It is internalizing a textual language.  To become comfortable with writing is, in some ways, to learn a new language.  

 

There are a lot of steps involved in this metaphor I’ve thrown out there, and I hope at some point to break them all down.  For now, what I want to focus on is this question of technology and reading.  Each generation grows up with its own technologies of reading. I am very much a product of my own generational reading technologies.  My mother’s generation was slightly different from mine.  But the technology we shared was the printed book.  Mine may have been paperbacks and hers hardcovers, mine may have had different covers and included more graphics and colors than hers, but she and I both sat with a bound codex in our laps or on our desks to learn things.  The printed codex will not be the technology of reading for the next generation.  It will be something else.  Although I am not the best person to explain how this next generation’s reading technologies will function, I can act as an intermediary and as a witness to the pleasures of my generation’s reading technologies.  

 

Back to Barthes, who has always been interested most in writing and–he claims–only secondarily in reading.  Are we writing and reading in new ways now?  Is this an age of a new kind of concision in communication, as well as one of collaboration in composition?  

 

My sense is that all that anyone needs to get started with reading is a door.  But what does that door look like for this generation?  My door looked like this:  some small books that my mother told me were must reads:  Kafka, ee cummings’ six non-lectures, some poems by Yeats.  This door opened a bit more in high school when I was introduced to various French existentialist writers.  This door was then blown off its hinges when I took a class on Proust in college, and it has been wide open ever since.  But if, for my generation, the clues were in footnotes and references and bibliographies, where are they for this generation?

Adapted from What Is Writing?: An Introduction to Writing as an Act and Medium of Communication (2015).


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