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On Summer Reading September 8, 2010

Posted by Laura Winnick in England, Individual Fellowship, Undergraduate.
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The past two months have been an experiment of thinking and reading. I think then I read, or I read then I think. Sometimes I do them both at the same time, but mostly keep them separate: pausing in the middle of a page to glance upwards, allow the wheels to rotate, then the pages to turn. For the past week I’ve been doing something different, something more difficult to wrap my mind around: thinking about the process and the experience of reading.

stack of books

First stack of library books taking over my desk.

There are terribly analytical theories about literature, about why we read and how we read. I’m beginning to engage with some of these theories in my own evaluation of the process of reading. The act itself may be simple—crack open the spine, find your place, read horizontally, words building into sentences, paragraphs, chapters. (Something crescendos in this process–assembling, growing.) But the ways in which we read and how our minds look at words and comprehend them is more complicated and comprehensive.

It’s important to understand that my research here is just that: reading, plain and simple. My list of books continues to grow every day as I am directed to other sources and moved to try new diarists. I am often overwhelmed at the sheer number of books I can find at the British Library (13,000, crikey). This feeling leads me to scurry back and forth between the issue desk and my seat, asking in my idle American accent, “I think I have eight books here now? Maybe nine?”

The librarians quip in clipped, polite British pitch: “You are only permitted six volumes at one time.” I know this; still I attempt to bring a wobbly tower of books back to my seat.

With the fear of becoming a hermit who never leaves the library, I’ve tried to traverse London and sit in different settings to read. This is a social experiment in and of itself. How I read is affected by climate, genre, and physicality of text.

  • Climate – noise, comfort, community, even the clothes I wear, the bracelets that jingle up and down my wrists as I hold the spine of a manuscript
  • Genre – poetry, blogs, non-fiction essays, eighteenth-century women’s diaries, new fiction; includes familiarity with the words
  • Physicality of the text – webpage, really old text, well-worn book defaced by a friend’s recognizable handwriting, or printed-out leaflet from a museum

Climate determines my attention level and genre, my interest. Physicality determines the immediacy of my response to the words. Will I use pencil or pen, scribble in the margins or in my notebook, underline or attach neon sticky notes to pages? Will I write myself into the text or write out of it, onto a blank notebook page?

Daily, I perch in one of the British Library’s small, padded carrels. There are hundreds of these small desks lined next to one another in the rare manuscripts and music room, but each reader remains enclosed, despite the high ceilings, open windows, and wide aisles. Reading here is a silent, respectful act. It is a private, solitary operation that requires most to take notes, to copy what is contained within the pages.

For breaks from eighteenth-century description, I retire to the Internet, to the click-click, scroll-scroll of creative blogs and interviews with writers. Blog writing is fast-paced. (For readers who are really thinking—now I’m writing about blog writing in a blog post. There’s something meta-fictional in all of this). This reading stumbles forward, moves in jerky steps and to other Web sites, features pictures to complement text, sound to invoke another sense, and video with dizzying imagery. Reading is a game, a challenge to one’s ability to focus. Diversions (advertisements, links, instant chatting with friends) cause the reader to engage in a constant call-and-retreat. I play cat-and-mouse with multiple tabs, often, accidentally abandoning an article that I intended to read. Reading here is speedy and shared, to be ingested quickly and then regurgitated by e-mail or through a social networking site.

On rainy afternoons I retire to my favorite tea shop to read poetry or my own writing. When the door swings open almost every five minutes, I glance upwards to watch the next Londoner walk in, to hear his or her choice of tea, listening to the way every word emerges differently from each mouth. This public reading is slow and languid. I focus on sentences, not chapters. I do not rush. I appreciate word choice, sentence construction—not the arc of plot or the overall narrative. On sunny afternoons I plop in the grassy bed of Regent’s Park. This reading is distracted. The book sits in my lap, but my head is often in the clouds. Late at night I read fiction that flows swiftly through pages—not an easy read, but a reading that lulls me into sleep. I remember only images, which often stumble into my dreams.

At times, I read with other people: sociable, dramatic reading. By the Southbank I recite Shakespearian sonnets out loud with my friend studying theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). I quiz her on her lines from Twelfth Night. This is audible reading, to be shared and learned through muscle memory. It is a physical act: words that imbed in memory through rereading and rehearsal. The fear of this reading is that if repeated, the text loses importance, lacks significance.

To find my way home, I read directions and maps. This reading implicates self in text, uniting person with place. Distinctly different, this reading causes me to position myself directly into the text. I read myself into the streets and neighborhoods, determining direction to understand location. I read underground in motion on the Tube. Still unsure of the different stops, I look at the looming map of each line in each station. This reading is like checking one’s heartbeat. I know I will find Waterloo at the base of the Northern line and still my eyes run over the list of stations, a reading of confirmation, of assurance.

Reading this voraciously has also bred in me the determined habit of prowling through secondhand bookshops. At a small one in Oxford this afternoon, I found Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London. It is the perfect book to conclude my summer reading, a tour of the city both real and fictionally imagined by all of the greatest British authors.

Quindlen: “Before I was a novelist, or a journalist, or even an adult, I felt about London the way most children my age felt about pen pals. I knew it well, but only at a distance, and only through words.” (Quindlen, 7)

It is with this familiarity that I prepare to leave London, to leave the diaries, to leave the literary landmarks. Like Quindlen, London will forever remain to me a pen pal, a distant city whose landscape, both real and imagined, will continue to be present in my writing and work.

Returning to London’s motion from Oxford’s quiet containment marked one of the most illuminating reading experiences yet. Context, genre, physicality, and setting fused, uniting the worlds passing by my window with the words passing through the pages of my new book.

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