AS THE WORLD around us eases out of pandemic lockdowns, libraries are filling up once again — to the utmost relief of a friend, who has now returned to his preferred routine of close reading. It consists, he says, of spending hours in the library when he can with a particular book from the shelves — and since our common library of choice does not allow books to be borrowed, he will have a personal copy at home. With the day’s library reading done, he will later pick it up at home. And so it goes back and forth, till the book is finished, and I suppose any notes are neatly interleaved. So it is that he is at last deep into Richard M Eaton’s masterful and vivid work of history, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765.
I don’t quite understand how this drill of reading a library copy elsewhere and another at home enables close reading, but then who am I to ask? All readers are different, and validly so. As literary critic Wendy Lesser noted in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books: “Nothing takes you out of yourself the way a good book does, but at the same time nothing makes you more aware of yourself as a solitary creature, possessing your own particular tastes, memories, associations, beliefs. Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters’ as well as the author’s), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do.”
But even Lesser was compelled to draw the line somewhere. She recounts a conversation when she went to buy an iPad. The woman at the store said that she preferred listening to audio books on the tablet to reading the text. “It’s easier for me to concentrate if I’m listening,” she told Lesser. “When I read with my eyes, sometimes I find that my mind drifts and I have to reread the same sentence over again to find out what it means.” Replied Lesser: “That’s how reading works.”
In fact, I have a variation of my friend’s library copy-personal copy routine, but not as a seamless two-step, and it’s entirely serendipitous in its occurrence. Sometimes, as a reader who anyway juggles four-five books at any given time, I’ll be stuck in a book, not able to move along. Browsing in a bookshop or a library, I’ll find a copy, and occasionally — not that frequently — I start reading it as something altogether new, from the beginning, just for a few pages or even paragraphs. But thereafter, I’ll find myself back in the novel (and this is always with fiction), easily resuming my reading at whatever section I had left it at.
There is also the other problem of reading a work of fiction too fast. Recently, I have been nudged towards a new routine after reading American writer George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Saunders, primarily a writer of short stories before his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, draws on a university class he has been teaching for 20 years on the 19th century Russian short story in translation. The course, he says, is aimed at enabling his students to “achieve what I call their ‘iconic space’ — the place from which they will write the stories only they could write”. For the first story, ‘In the Cart’ by Anton Chekhov, he employs an “one-page-at-a-time exercise” — he gives the reader a page of the story, which is then analysed in detail, prodding her to ask among other things the question, “If we want to keep reading, why do we?” Then the next page.
It’s a matter of being mindful that, as Saunders puts it, “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.” It helps readers appreciate a work of art, it also helps them size up “people with agendas” in the real world.