Reading in English

“Read as though it made sense and perhaps it will.”

—I.A. Richards

Reading in English is more than finding information as you might, say, in a biology textbook or in a book that describes the major theories of psychology. Reading in English is also more than the act of recording information or summarizing main ideas. Consider what happens when you are faced with reading a poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

To read this poem, Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro,” is to become aware of the occasion of reading. That is, a reading of the poem requires a reader to note the particular parts and see how they might come together. Who is speaking? In what context? What about the language? Why “apparition”? What about the two lines of the poem? How do I make sense of the second line of the poem? One of the ways to read the poem would be to write about it. Working on a text by writing about it is a way of reading, or rereading, that will help you practice becoming aware of how you are reading, and consider the consequences in the choices you have made in the act of reading.

Writing becomes a powerful tool for reading texts that do not easily summarize—texts that present readers with striking, surprising, even troubling uses of language. One might cite the philosophical dialogues of Plato or the writing about economics by Adam Smith. Consider the following passage from a lecture by the philosopher William James delivered at the Lowell Institute in December of 1906:

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful. Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as the true ideas in all this primary sphere of verification, and the pursuit of such ideas is a primary human duty. The possession of truth, so far from being here an end in itself, is only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions. If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.

Or consider the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s astonishing essay on the creative process he titled “Circles”:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . [E]very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Most readers can follow these passages. But this is not language readily summarized. In fact, placing these excerpts back in the context of the lectures from which they are taken requires the reader to do some work. Marking the text in the margin, or underlining or bracketing phrases or sentences that are particularly difficult or even mysterious, begins the process of making meaning. What does James mean that we live in a world of realities? Why the plural? What does it mean to say that these realities are “infinitely useful or infinitely harmful?” Can I begin with an analogy to a situation that translates the “we” into “me”?

The point is that the reading begins with your encounter with the text and acknowledging that the work of making meaning begins with your thinking. Sure, you could go to a book that summarizes James’ essay (and theory of truth) for you. But in doing so you merely repeat what someone else has concluded from her or his way of reading. More importantly, you miss an opportunity to learn how to read. Working on a text that challenges you is like mastering a sequence of chords on a guitar or learning how to throw a Frisbee. After spending time going over the passage you will be able to do more with that passage. With texts that are well put together, which deserve this kind of attention, you will most likely feel a sense of incompleteness, of not quite being able to sum it up. Not to worry, as this feeling is common in an experience of reading writing that matters.

Literary texts are texts that have mattered to readers. Literature, Ezra Pound quips, is “news that stays news.” The literary texts that remain news in a community of readers are texts that imagine ways of thinking about or being in the world that are useful in some way to readers. Literary texts, in this sense, might be understood as forms of reasoning that we use to reason—to think with, or imagine, our selves and the world. “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle,” Emerson writes in “Circles,” “through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.” A comparable case is made by the poet Adrienne Rich in her essay  “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision”: “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Such a use of literature, or a need to know, begins in the act of reading—attentively, as well as with generosity and humility—and the critical activity of thinking and writing that might follow.