1.28.2008

reading: a methodology

A "Talk of the Town" in this past week's New Yorker recounts how Art Garfunkel has kept an index of the 1023 or so books he has read since June, 1968. The list, kept on loose leaf pages, reveals a predilection for classics and 'high literature' (James, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy), as well as more rarefied fare (St. Augustine, Hazlitt, Spinoza). "I avoid fluff," he announces with appealing surety. Managing and publicizing such a list (with its hint of intellectual "ostentation," as the New Yorker calls it) is rather like a charmingly analog Library Thing. (For those of you who like books, list making, and/or intellectual braggadocio, high-tail it over there at once!)

"Reading,” Garfunkel explains, "is a way to take downtime and make it stimulating." While I never actively thought of reading as an interstitial time-filler, I suppose it is for me, too: in bed on the runway toward sleep, on the subway to wile away the tedium, in a diner ("Bitter? Party of one?").

The New Yorker piece then goes on to detail Garfunkel's particular reading habits...
He writes vertical lines in the margin next to passages he finds exceptional, arrows next to references to places he’d like to visit, and a little circle next to any word he needs to look up....He once read the Random House Dictionary, back to front.
I never thought I'd say this but Art Garfunkel sounds like my type of guy.

My reading rationale, as it has evolved: A page dog-eared from the bottom means there is something particularly interesting or noteworthy or beautiful, which may or may not get underlined or called out with a vertical mark in the margin (like Art!) for extra emphasis. A page dog-eared from the top indicates something requires research, a word that needs looking up or an idea that needs further background explanation. No highlighters, no markers, occasional ballpoint.

Typically I'm not one for full-blown marginalia. I do not make detailed notes or rejoinders that travel along the edges of a page. These are things I always half-associated with student-groupies who fawned over seminar leaders or the annoying hyper-articulate wunderkind who theatrically engaged the professor in personal debate at every turn. But its not that I mind marking the pages, I am not precious about my books. (My mother is much more of an opinion-sharing, note-writing reader, especially with the disposable reading matter. A Vanity Fair, for instance, might be passed on to me punctuated with exclamation points, clarifications or definitive assessments like, "bastards.")

I do not like book jackets. This is ironic since I sometimes design them for a living, but I find them cumbersome and unwieldly. I always seem to rip or crease them, or my cat will try to chew on the edges.

Many of my books are softcover and
I'm not very dainty with these at all. They get bruised, scuffed, wrinkled. When I take one to read on the subway I stuff it into my bag where it mixes with makeup (the page edges sometimes take on a rosey hue) and uncapped pens (angry erratic lines) and newspapers (smudges). And when I go out for breakfast with my book, there's always the danger of an errant drop of ketchup or egg yolk.

My habit is to often skip ahead or read chapters out of order, which is, as I read mostly non-fiction, not too
disruptive .
What I cannot do, though, is force myself to finish a book I do not like. I can't understand friends who say things like, "Oh that, that was annoying—it wasn't very well-written." Page four? irritating narrative tics? stilted dialogue?—I'm outta there. In junior high school we had summer reading lists. One particularly difficult summer found me reading and rereading the same lines in Cry the Beloved Country with no hope of getting to the end before September. For the life of me, my seventh grade head could not reconcile having to read that book. So I created a crude reading aid:
1) Take one sheet of blank paper
2) cut out
a narrow "window", exactly the height and length of one line of text
3) slowly move the window down the page, one line at a time, to keep eye focussed.

I can confidently say that, post-academia, all the books I have actually read—I like.

2 comments:

cryingboy said...

yeah. we should be friends, alright

Carol said...

I used to feel that not finishing a book I'd started was an insult to the author. Fortunately, I learned (from a librarian!)the Fifty-Page Rule: if it hasn't grabbed you by page 50, toss it. And if your age exceeds 50, you're only obligated to read the difference between your age and 100. (I'm now only required to read 26 pages before doing thumbs up or down).

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