Friday, November 10, 2006

Zadie Smith on reading

[Welcome, Boing Boing readers!]

Zadie Smith tells it like it is. These are useful, useful words for any student of literature:

But the problem with readers, the idea we're given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don't know, who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That's the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral, but it's completely true.
Bookworm interview: Zadie Smith (KCRW FM, Santa Monica, CA, via kottke.org)

Related posts
George Steiner on reading (excerpt from "The end of bookishness?")
Words, mere words (excerpt from Mark Edmondson's Why Read?)

comments: 13

Lee said...

Useful indeed. I'm always aghast at the sheer number of books some bloggers read - or claim to read - in a week; a day. The counterargument is usually that there are many different kinds of readers, and why are you so elitist anyway: 'I have the right to read any way I want'. All of which misses the point, doesn't it?

I like the analogy with music, which is precisely why I insisted that my children learn an instrument (with diverse success) - not to turn them into professionals, not even into competent amateurs, however desirable, but to give them a basis for understanding music.

A gift, as Smith says.

Dr. Lisa said...

Yes, well, I read comparatively quickly, so a 200 page book in a week is really not that big of a deal. After all, if reading involves effort like amateur music (a wonderful analogy), the more you do it, the better you are at it--a muscle. That said, I don't always get through a book a week.

Lee said...

No Lisa, the better I do it, the slower I get. But of course I can't speak for anyone else. And even in music, it's not necessarily true that the more you do it, the better you get, beyond a certain minimum technical facility: a lot, for example, depends on how you're taught, and how you practise. One of my sons is in his last year of cello study at a specialist music school, and he struggled for years to overcome poor technique taught to him very early on; and then there are those, he tells me, who practise fanatically 6-8 hours a day but will never ever progress beyond a certain threshold.

Michael Leddy said...

I'm slow too. But fast or slow, what I like about Smith's analogy is the emphasis on putting forth effort, as opposed to passively taking in. I'm always talking about that with my students, so I'm happy to have these words to back me up.

It occurred to me after adding this post that Smith's reference to a "classical model" of reading is probably alluding to George Steiner's "The end of bookishness?", which refers to "classical modes of reading." This essay is not online, but I typed an excerpt from it here: George Steiner on reading.

Lee said...

Yes, I agree about the effort, which automatically accompanies close reading, I suspect. Another analogy from music: my son's most recent teachers have always emphasised that if there is no attentive practice, there's no practice at all. Even a scale played passively - without full concentration - is a waste of time (beyond the beginning stages, I suppose).

Do you happen to have a copy of the entire Steiner essay?

Michael Leddy said...

Lee, I have a copy someplace, yes. (I'm not sure where.) It's from microfilm, sort of readable. If you can't find it, I'll find mine and send you a copy if you'd like.

Dr. Lisa said...

Of course a lot depends on how you are taught, Lee, but you can't assume that's going to related to the question of speed versus comprehension. I tend to read things at different levels. I used to be able to consume trashy mysteries, romances, and spy novels until the junk ran out of my ears. I am not sure those merit close reading. Once I finished my PhD, I couldn't read those anymore--the bad prose, canned plots, made-to-market characters just never worked for me anymore.

Lee said...

Michael, if you think it's worth reading in its entirety, then yes, I'd appreciate a copy (no rush). Thanks.

Annie said...

Whenever I tell people I'm a speed reader, the first thing that they ask me is, "Are you really reading?" I find that so offensive. I love to read, I live to read, I taught myself to speed read when I was 8 so I could read more. I can read a 200 page book in 90 minutes if I want to. Or I can take my time and savor the language and the story if I want to. For me, a good read is when I lose track of time altogether.

But I don't think how fast or how slow you read has any relevance to what Smith is saying, or Steiner in that quote. I know when I'm engaging and when I'm not, and I can do either at any speed, fast or slow. The more I ead, the less tolerant I am of flimsy works, of books that don't challenge me or writers who don't care about language, or who care too much about language at the expense of a good story.

Lee said...

Annie, I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree - cordially, of course, and with certainly no intent on my part to offend. There's no absolute scale to go by, but I cannot see how it's possible to do deep justice to a text at a fast clip, though it obviously differs from individual to individual. Effort and time are related. Of course you can enjoy it. Of course you can immerse yourself in it. Of course you can engage with it - at least at certain levels. But I believe Smith is talking about reading like a writer, to quote Francine Prose.

Smith uses the example of an amateur musician. From personal example I've seen professional musicians teach how to practise and how to engage with a piece of music. It's always both a slow and an arduous process.
However, it might be that the comparison is not quite apt, because a musician has to perform the music actively, more like an actor than a reader.

One small example of what I mean: I've just read a simple and stark paragraph from Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road where a desolate vista is described, right near the beginning of the novel. A boy and his father are standing at the crest of a cold, windy hill. The man puts his hand on top of the boy's shoulder. It's all very simply described, and I'm sure any reader will pick up the protective tenderness in the gesture, feel the rhythm and harsh music of the language. But I stopped to ask myself just how the sense of tenderness is achieved. I may not understand, or not fully, but the questioning, almost the dissection of the paragraph, is very time-consuming.

Are there readers who can do it faster? I imagine so, but I don't happen to be one of them.

annie said...

"But I believe Smith is talking about reading like a writer, to quote Francine Prose."

This is an interesting statement. I'm a professional writer in various media (fiction and non-fiction), and have a deep love of the written word. I would rather read than do anything else, most of the time.

But is "reading like a writer" the best way to read? Is is the most superior way of doing justice to what the writer has done? I'm not arguing that it's not a good or valuable way to read, only the weight it's being given, which I don't really see in this excerpt from Smith.

I see this essay challenging the kind of reading that's purely about escape, that makes no bones about quality, that's easily satisfied with words of one- and two- syllables and cliched characters and on-the-nose dialogue.

What you're describing when you talk about how you read The Road can't be done quickly, and it would be foolish to try. But I guess where I disagree with you is not in the worth of parsing a text closely and deliberately, but that this is the best way to read. Do you find that with micro-reading there is the risk of losing context?

The beauty of reading is that it's self-moderated. I can speed up or slow down or reread the same sentence 15 times if I want to. It all depends on what the story requires and the text asks of me. I am also inclined to reread books that I feel have merit, and often that reading experience is a different one.

For me, in particular--my quick reading is a natural talent. I can't even really explain how I do it (except for when I am deliberately skimming for work-related reasons). It's like the beat of my heart; it slows down and speeds up depending upon what I'm doing. But my natural resting place is not really under my control.

Anonymous said...

Perfect

Anonymous said...

good