Home » Books in General » A Weapon for Readers

A Weapon for Readers

30 December 2014

From The New York Review of Books:

Imagine you are asked what single alteration in people’s behavior might best improve the lot of mankind. How foolish would you have to be to reply: have them learn to read with a pen in their hands? But I firmly believe such a simple development would bring huge benefits.

We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both. If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity. What surprised me most when I first began publishing fiction myself was how much at every level a novelist canget away with.

This extravagant regard, which seemed to reach a peak in the second half of the twentieth century as the modernists of a generation before were canonized as performers of the ever more arduous miracle of conferring a little meaning on life, is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins. Obviously, for those of us brought up on library books and school-owned textbooks (my copy of Browning bore the name of a dozen pupils who had used the text before me), there were simple and sensible reasons supporting this behavior. But the reverence went beyond a proper respect for those who would be reading the pages after you. Even when I bought a book myself, if my parents caught me breaking its spine so that it would lay open on the desk, they were shocked. Writing was sacred. In the beginning was the Word. The word written down, hopefully on quality paper. Much of the resistance to e-books, notably from the literati, has to do with a loss of this sense of sacredness, of a vulnerable paper vessel that can thrive on our protective devotion.

. . . .

Aside from simply insisting, as I already had for years, that they be more alert, I began to wonder what was the most practical way I could lead my students to a greater attentiveness, teach them to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it? I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “bullshit.”

A pen is not a magic wand. The critical faculty is not conjured from nothing. But it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Books in General

40 Comments to “A Weapon for Readers”

  1. ‘I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “b*******.”’

    Way to ruin the reading experience. But no doubt it makes him feel superior.

    (Btw, that’s a wrong use of ‘lay’, Tim. And ‘hopefully’. And I didn’t even need a pen.)

  2. I can hardly begin to say how much I disagree with just about everything expressed in this article! Unless it’s a self regarding academic parody of some kind. But perhaps he should be pitied, since he has clearly lost the blessed facility of reading purely for pleasure. Or stopping reading something when it gives him no pleasure – on the understanding that somebody else may feel differently, and that’s OK. I feel sorry for the students he has infected, all those poor kids unable to see the wood for the trees, unable to enter the world of a novel because they are sitting there, pen in hand, aggressively commenting. It reminds me of those poor souls who come to see a play and try to follow the script instead of immersing themselves in the production.

  3. Some readers will fear that the pen-in-hand approach denies us those wonderful moments when we fall under a writer’s spell…

    Doesn’t it?

  4. This is like the exact definition of reading with critical mind. I prefer the DWS view on this, that the critical mind is the enemy of the creative (to paraphrase).

    • Indeed. Turning good, happy readers into critics.

    • Except it’s not. The critical mind is a working partner to the creative — but they do need to work with one another and not against.

      • For many writers, the creative mind is a far more gifted storyteller than the critical mind.

        • The critical mind can’t tell a story at all. However, it still has its place in the process, as a tempering agent. There’s no point demonizing it, just give the two processes enough space to not interfere with one another.

          As it applies to reading, if you enjoyed a story, there’s nothing wrong with reading it again, pen in hand, to figure out why.

          For fiction, I’d say don’t do it for a first read-through though.

          • The critical mind can’t tell a story at all.

            Ah, yes, I agree with you on that. Where do you use the critical mind in the process of storytelling? I’m not aware of it having much of a role in my own process. Sure I want my story to be believable, engaging, and clear, but my creative mind handles the first two, and I rely on my first reader to point out any spots where I’ve confused the reader. I’m curious about your process. Perhaps I could learn something from you.

            • The critical mind is mostly engaged in the editing process, but it’s also the part that’s sorting all your words in the order that makes the most sense, so it’s never completely disengaged. If it were, you’d end up with something more disjointed, like a dream, rather than a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end.

              I’d say people who write clean first drafts are those who’ve had so much practice, they’ve managed the integrate the critical, structured part of the writing process into the creative part without feeling like it’s intruding.

              Then there’s people like me, who write first drafts that are a half-written mess. I enter a dream-like state where I’m typing as fast as I can to record the movie playing in my head. I have to make a second pass with my critical mind fully engaged to make sense of all I’ve written and flesh it out. I’ve learned how to manage the creative/critical sides of myself separately rather than together. It’s a good thing I enjoy doing both.

              I also love getting feedback, where the critical mind is at play both in your first readers and yourself, parsing what they’re saying about what they did and didn’t like. I tend to pull back a little too much when it comes to exposition, for example, so a first reader asking questions as they read lets me know exactly where I either failed to elaborate on something, or they picked up on the story question designed to drive them forward. For me, having a reader who writes in the margins is incredibly helpful. I don’t think I’d mind if someone did that after I published the story either. I’d take anything they said into consideration for the next story.

              Though most of my published work, to date, has come from writing for video game mods, where player feedback is always welcome because you can always release another version. Once I finished a novel and got a few short stories under my belt, I looked for the equivalent of good beta testers and found the most critical readers to be some of the most helpful.

              • Interesting. I’m wondering if you and I have different connotations for the word critical. I think I might say “discerning” where you say “critical.” Thanks for sharing your process!

                • Thank you. In art college I learned to associate the word “critical” with analysis and critique, whereas the negative connotations are something I call hyper-critical to differentiate the two. Being hyper-critical is an unbalanced position, where snark and pedantry outweighs any helpful advice. I consider it a matter of degree rather than kind.

            • Where do you use the critical mind in the process of storytelling?

              Holding the plot together, making sure it is consistent, ensuring events don’t contradict each other, arranging timelines, placing the story in locales in a way that reflects the reality of the locales.

              These are all choices the author makes. If he does choose them, they can employ the critical mind.

              • At the end of one of the recent GIJoe movies, a giant base underneath the polar ice cap fell apart and sank. There was a thrilling chase scene as tiny pods tried to escape and simultaneously kill each other, dodging through giant blocks of sinking ice. My husband leaned over to me.

                “Ice doesn’t sink.”

                He has never, ever forgiven that oversight.

                The creative mind, all by itself, is a terrible thing to do to a story. You end up with all manner of ill-conceived technical plot devices that just make you look… stupid.

                Most genres of fiction have some degree of immunity to logic, and a lot of what DWS is talking about is the literary editor in your brain, not your critical, logical mind. You don’t tell a good story by spending hours planning your symbolisms and themes in advance, and then wringing the life out of every word as you line them up like soldiers. But please don’t ignore the importance of reason in your writing. I actually agreed with a lot of this article, because writers do get a magical free pass to all kinds of bad logic – logic that gets integrated into how an audience thinks and sees the world. People do this on purpose, making big, dramatic, emotional movies and books that are specifically designed to change political policy. It doesn’t have to make sense, so long as you feel it. I think it really is a lack of critical awareness on the part of the audience, and it is something that reading with a pen in your hand would help.

                This isn’t about critiquing words. It’s about critiquing ideas and logic and not letting sloppy, lazy, or malicious ideas or logic find an unwitting place in your view of the world.

  5. He’s a Servant of Nothing (SON).

    Watch The Neverending Story, part one and two, and you will see what I mean. Ignore three, it was corrupted by The Nothing, just like this guy. HA!

  6. If the students just wanted to read, why are they taking the course? I think the pen is a tool for accomplishing whatever the goal of the course is.

  7. Close reading and commenting is a valuable tool. Lots of people enjoy highlighting and making margin notes, or the electronic equivalent. But just because you have a hammer, that doesn’t mean everything is a nail.

    Also, he doesn’t seem to have respect for any reading style except his own.

    My feeling is that on your first readthrough of any book, you should avoid notes and preconceptions as much as possible. Afterwards, you can go at it as much as you like. (But frankly, a good book will continue to catch me in its spell on the hundredth read. As it should.)

    • But just because you have a hammer, that doesn’t mean everything is a nail.

      Yes. In the passage he quotes, about Maria’s undressing, he seems to think his students are idiots because they passed over “without taking a breath.” He seems to have read that passage far too literally, without considering that his students read it as meaning “without pause.” He says the passage is mistranslated, but he hasn’t made the case for his students being careless with that passage as they read it.

      Also, I’m not sure he’s right that people have too much respect for the printed word. We’ve all encountered the types that Harlan Ellison and Woody Allen mocked (the McLuhan scene), who read a text and assume that everything means something entirely different than what the writer wrote. In Ellison’s (perhaps too perfect) anecdote, a critic insisted that Emma in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” wasn’t actually black even though he said she was; he thought Ellison was making a metaphor for some sort of BS. In those cases I just want to pull a Yoda and tell the reader that what they think they see is only what they’re bringing with them.

  8. Those folks really don’t venture out into the real world much, do they?
    (It actually explains a lot if that is how they think of readers.)

  9. “…teach them to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it?”

    God forbid this guy might shift his attitude about something.

    His pen is not a tool, but a “weapon.” Nice. Maybe he should more closely examine his own “symbols and metaphors” before his “stigmata of literature” gets infected.

  10. “…teach them to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it?”

    God forbid this guy might shift his attitude about something.

    His pen is not a tool, but a “weapon.” Nice. Maybe he should more closely examine his own “symbols and metaphors” before his “stigmata of literature” gets infected.

  11. Thank you, you wonderful TPV denizens. You save me much time and aggravation.

    I now forward straight to the comments on each article. By reading your comments first, I avoid those articles I am better off never having read, and I find the good ones quickly.

    Thanks again.

    • @ antares

      LOL. +1.

      Yes, I started to read TPV comments before deciding to go to the original. Saves lots of time… and aggravation, too. 🙂

      And just the type of snooty article I’d expect from the NYT ROB. Not for the lumpenproles (like TPV commenters).

      • Hey! I thoroughly enjoy being a lumpenprole!

        • That’s how I read TPV. First look at the title, then the number of comments, scroll down to see if PG had anything to say, then go straight to the comments without reading the article. Depending on what the comments say I then go read the article. Saves much aggravation and time, lol.

        • @ Suzan

          Lumpenproles always enjoy being themselves! 😉

          It’s the hoity-toities who have identity issues! 🙂

  12. Pen in hand is one way to read a book that’s all; and it belongs in everyone’s bag ‘o tricks where it would be awful if we had no others.

    What I liked about this piece was that it reminded me of my great uncle Ned. I inherited a few of his books, saved for me by one of his sons… who pulled them from the fire when his family held the book burning after Ned’s death… ordered by his wife… circa 1970.

    When Ned liked something he read, he drew a little hand pointing at the passage. Drew it with his carpenter’s pencil, which he sharpened with a pocket knife.

    One of his books I have is a little pamphlet – his copy of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx (published as a Little Blue Book in Girard, Kansas). Plenty of Ned’s little hands pointing at plenty of passages in that one.

    This tells you something about why the book burning was ordered. But Ned was complex, I also have his copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

    :o)

  13. I can see it as a way of reading a piece of nonfiction, but if you keep interrupting nonfiction you’re just a heckler, and yes, you are failing to let the story transport you.

  14. all that ‘pen-play’ it’s all okay with me as long as he/she also knows how to dig, frame and pour sill plate, site and build a house for a family, foal a mare who is struggling, grow all fruits and vegetables needed for family taking one’s chances year after year in short growing seasons, and by one’s own steam, track and secure the protein needed for the family. If one can do those, whatever fancydancy one wants to do with a pen is ok with me.

    I’m sorry in advance, but I was just thinking of this ‘essay’ being offered to men and women on the big rigs who provide much of our life-sustaining food supply– or offering it to any of the assembly workers on the line who provide mass transportation vehicles that help to preserve clean air for cities… and seeing their reactions to what one ought to do with a pen.

    I have a funny feeling ‘what to do with a pen’ would have decidedly different options proposed. lol

    on another hand, I think it’s good to ‘deface’ books by writing one thoughts in them and reading them years later. But that’s not new. It’s been going on since charcoal and paper.

    I love the uncle mentioned above who wrote with carpenter’s pencil, little hands. Too cool.

  15. A rather pointless article, in my opinion. I was tempted to grab my pen and make notes next to each paragraph, but decided to stop reading it instead.

  16. This seems like the type of guy that would come to your house and sniff your socks.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.