Reading is like exercise. You have to practice it. Call it the sit-down practice of exercising your mental and emotional acuity. Even though you aren’t sweating while you turn the pages, you are still expending energy. If you like what you are reading, then you move beyond the first page, and the next, and soon you are cycling your way to the end of the book, giving to the writer your energy, thoughts, and feelings, as well as your interpretation of what you read on the page. Perhaps you realize that you are in a relationship with this writer, like a dance based on reciprocity between the two of you. Further, you might understand at some point that this dance is an ethical dance, in which the reader “gives to” the writer, just as the writer “gives away” to the reader. Such a reciprocal dance is based on some ground rules between readers and writers.
Think this: At some point, most likely at the start of a writer’s career, say a first novel, a first memoir, fifty rejection letters, a bout of depression, this writer is vulnerable. Then a publisher sees his brilliance, takes a chance on him, and publishes his first book. A reader can pass the book up entirely, but if she perceives its vitality and worth, she holds the cards in how to think, act, and write about it. She is a critic in waiting. Does she then owe this unknown writer anything? Is she obligated to do her best when talking about this book, say at a book club or in a lecture, or writing about it online or in an article or paper? If so, what does this obligation mean in practice?
Given my experience as a reviewer on bookscover2cover.com, I think readers, in particular reviewers of the longform, are obligated to seek out the deeper levels of a writer’s work so that the layers of meaning are revealed. To accomplish such a meticulous undertaking, I practice a close read, which in my case is a slow read. Some readers can grasp the deeper levels the first read through, but I need to read a book at least twice to discover what is at the heart of the book in order to gain insight into its form (structure) and content: How the writer put it together.
Discovering how the writer puts a book together is a demanding task, but I find it a rewarding exercise, not the least bit punishing, and I can only accomplish this via a close read. In uncovering the structure, I glean motifs and layers of meaning that ground my interpretations. I grow to understand the characters: their actions, motives, desires, purpose, and status. I listen to the tone; search for the mood; and reconstruct the story, almost magically unraveling the work and putting it back together to see it as a living whole.
If the book demands a close read such as I describe above, I am in a reciprocal relationship with the writer, working from inside the text, searching for clues that will help me extract the layers that hold the text together—the nuts and bolts of the book. If such an exercise is worthy of my time, energy, and effort, then I must also reflect on what I owe a writer. In fairness to the writer, I try to avoid the three m’s—misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations. Not only can a close read increase the chance that the reader will be “thinking with” the writer, it also indicates a sensitivity to what the book says, not what the reader wants it to say. This dance between readers and writers attends to the needs of both, and it is relevant to the work itself: what it says, what it does, how it affects, why it creates. Understanding the work is consequential—to both readers and writers.
There is ethics involved in this reciprocal dance. Creating has intrinsic vulnerability. For readers, the ethics involve understanding a work in the deepest and widest sense in order to open it up to the light. This is the act of “giving to” the writer. For writers, the ethics involve a specific responsibility of “giving away” their creativity responsibly, and, perhaps, humbly. This reciprocity can be achieved through a considerate judgment of the intrinsic worth of the imagination as it is revealed by both readers and writers.
Really so interesting! I don’t think I usually read with such determination or even awareness of the “nuts and bolts” as you put it. I delight in “the sit-down practice of exercising your mental and emotional acuities”(as you perfectly described it) but without examining it. Does that make sense? The whole piece of writing here is a lot of food for thought! Thank you for that Sandy! I think you come from more of a “writer” perspective than I do–I don’t really think of myself as a writer, even though I do enjoy writing–it’s usually an unplanned flow of words, and then I sit back breathless with happiness that it happened at all!
After I finish a piece of writing, I wonder sometimes where it came from, too. And like you, I sit back and marvel at the “magic” of writing, as if it comes from somewhere that is “not me”—a mysterious presence from my childhood? It is all happiness when I complete a work that has taken me days to write. In reading your reviews I feel fulfilled, so you are very much a writer too. Readers feel vicariously your sense of fulfillment when you finish a novel that you love.
I love your analogy of the reader/writer relationship being a dance of reciprocity. I enjoy your long-form reviews and learn so much about the heart and soul of the book before I read the first page.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the reader and writer for a long time, what obligations, if any, readers and writers have to each other. When I was teaching composition, I tried to be attentive to what was going on in the composition and how my comments would help the writer end up with a well written paper. My comments were what I would call positive and instructional. Readers need to be truthful, but there are ways of being truthful without being negative. And thank you, Piper, for reading my long forms. They are a passion of mine.