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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Deep reading

The Alphabet Primer by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
showing part of the Griffin, John Barleycorn, and the Knight.
GS: This line of argument was put best, at least by my lights, in Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies. Though the book is now twenty years old, developments since then have only confirmed that changes in the physical form of reading gradually, on a molecular level and scale and pace, do indeed alter our psychic metabolism. One of the great virtues of Birkerts' book is its evocation of the spiritual and imaginative possibilities of deep reading. The book is a phenomenology of deep reading, of the way that immersion in a great and demanding text, piece of music, or piece of visual art can activate deep and previously untouched capacities and allow connections to be made among our cultural neurons, which can only happen in relative stillness and isolation.
PG: In solitude.
GS: In solitude. That's his argument; and I'm persuaded. The second part of the argument is that stillness and solitude are just what life online makes increasingly difficult. Since The Gutenberg Elegies was published, Nicholas Carr has written The Shallows, which makes something of the same case, without Birkerts' literary flair but with a certain amount of reporting on recent developments in cognitive science.
            The book in its physical form probably can't last forever. It's not part of my or Birkerts' hope or brief that it should. But deep reading, imaginative immersion: those things do need to last forever. The printed book can be lost and left behind, but the spiritual habitus Birkerts is describing can't, or mustn't, be left behind - it's the royal road to the very best that any individual can achieve. And it's at risk in our current mental ecology. 


  1. I think that the Book, in some form, will always exist..
    I know too many artists who love playing with the form! I'm one.. Have been planning one using leaves of glass, presenting images in a nested form, for quite some time.

    It'll take a generation or two to make my tree based books rare, true.. But I do believe that reading a computer screen is causing harm to the human eye.. Eyes arent used to having light beamed constantly into them like reading a lit tablet does... So, I don't believe that tablet reading, as it stands now, will replace books, not yet ;)


  2. Leaves of glass! I want to see pictures when you're done...

  3. I've been working on the dea for years... I'm kinda stuck on the "hingeing"... It's the spot where it needs to be strongest, and yet, everything I think of makes it weakest there...

    Otherwise, I know ~exactly what I want to do, for several editions. And now I kinda know how to paint (before, I was just playing around)...

    I can use fire on paints (permanent), or oil paints, or oil pastels, or even acrylics... Just those darned hinge attachments are keeping me back!

    I'm sure I'll show you ASAP when I do it ;)


  4. That's "idea"

  5. Looking forward to "Leaves of Glass."

  6. mary bullington8:37 AM, June 13, 2012

    When I was in grad school in the 1980s in the English Dept of a well known American university, the art of close reading--slow, imaginative, analytic reading of fiction and poetry--was being tossed aside in favor of "theory." Close reading, of the kind evident in literary criticism prior to that time, was something most people in my classes took for granted--without necessarily knowing how to do it. This was evident especially in my poetry classes as well as in the contemporary, almost unreadable criticism of the late 20th century. When I wanted to learn something about a book or writer I was reading, I went first to books of criticism written in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

    These readers brought to their work not only an intimate knowledge of the texts I was studying, but a wide-ranging knowledge of other literature and history. And they weren't ashamed of reading closely--often very closely--and writing well about the experience.

  7. I bet it was evident in poetry!

    I had a lucky grad school experience in that I was at the tail end at my school of an old-fashioned cherishing of literary and critical tradition. But the old guard was dying off and has now been replaced.

  8. I LOVE reading critiques (or studies) of books I'm reading or have read! (not cliff notes)

    I don't mind reading reviews, but they're not usually critiques... They may be critical, which isn't the same thing at all, and many times, just petty.

    I didn't realize those weren't being done anymore! What happened to cause that?


  9. European theory invaded! And won. Close reading seeped away, highly unfashionable. I do think that writers who want to conserve the older tradition exist. Also, we have few general critics where we once had a good many popular, influential thinkers like Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, etc.

  10. As a person who went for an MFA to UC Irvine, a theory intensive school, and stayed for a PhD in Comparative Literature, I can say that close reading is not as incompatible with the newer brands of interpretation as you might think.
    Of course, loving that mode of reading, I still feel most comfortable with those theories that use this methods, such as Russian Formalism and Neo-Formalism and variations of this, Narratology, and sometimes elements of structuralism.
    But where would deconstruction be without close reading? Though I tire of their coy use of language and obscurity, essentially, they use close reading to find the paradox and aporia they claim underlie all texts.
    I am teaching a class in literary theory online this summer... doubly divorced from the traditional methods of pedagogy and the traditional text, but I for one will still be using paper texts, underlining, and drafting any writing of some length I will do as instructor in the course.

  11. Go, Robbi! Redeem theory... I leave the job to you, however!

  12. We'll see how it goes. I would still rather read a plain old book, when it comes down to it, and write poems of course!
    I don't think I'll be writing any theoretical poetry. Though one never knows...

  13. Don't rule it out!

    Sent you a Hollins invite and saw you are already there...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.