On Being a Good Reader.

I am a good reader.

I say I am a good reader, not because I read a lot. I did complete a speed reading course.  I can speed read something, get “a deep gist”, say I’ve read it and understand that to be the case. I read plenty of books and articles this way, and claim with confidence I’ve read them even after skimming the last three paragraphs or chapters perhaps a little more than I should.

That is not the sort of reading I am talking about.

At a writers festival a few years back, Patrick Allington was asked about his experience of J.M Coetzee as a mentor. Patrick’s book “Figurehead” is a read I enjoyed. But I confess I first picked up the book and later followed him at the writer’s festival, because the Nobel Laureate was his close guide on his first novel and I was interested in any possible impact on this novice writer’s process. When asked the question about his guide a silence fell over the room and I realised I wasn’t the only one interested in Patrick for this reason. A certain look, a hushed reverence came over his face, and he said with great mystery; some relationships you can’t put into words. What goes on between two people can’t always be explained.

He must have sensed how pissed off we all were, because he followed this up with:

And he is the best reader I have ever known. That is the key to success; if you have a slow, deep reader, committed to every word.

I recognised instantly what he was talking about.

One of my favourite essays – or rather collection of essays – is “What is Literature” by John Paul Sartre. The three early essays, What is writing?, Why write? and For whom does one write? are essays I read, repeat read and repeat read again. This is one of those books my passion for banality turns into a gift on birthdays, no doubt preventing the possibility of the recipients actually reading it.

One of the prevalent themes, and an idea adopted as precious to me, is this: more than any other art form, writing is a collaborative effort.

If your work is never read by anyone, the work still lives, but it lives in a different way. Writing’s existence depends on the way the reader reads the work. This is why the writer is desperate to be read. At first this may appear to be an ego generated desire – and it may well be – but look deeper and you are aware the missing shared experience. A works realisation lies in collaboration, not hanging on the wall in a frame, or pouring into your receptive ears filling up your mind. Writing does not exist without the painstaking effort of the reader. It is that simple.

“For since the one who writes recognizes, by the very fact that he takes the trouble to write, the freedom of his readers, and since the one who reads, by the mere fact of his opening the book, recognises the freedom of the writer, the work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men. And since readers, like the author, recognise this freedom only to demand that it manifest itself, the work can be defined as an imaginary presentation of the world in so far as it demands human freedom.” From Why Write? J.P. Sartre.

I don’t have to read.  You don’t have to write.  We do it as an act of our freedom.  We chose.  We are present.We give ourselves to the work.

My reading is an art form. I want to feel the words, I want them in my belly, which is my own personal sense assessment for the world (what can I say, I’m a low chakra kinda gal). I want to take the time to notice the gifted stiff neck or the unfurling of previously mysterious wings at my back.  By approaching reading in this manner, when I read for my artist friends, I can feel any problems, no matter how minor. This has led to some astounding moments, like me recognising instantly when the writer moved away from their desk and came back the next day, or the music they used in the back ground for inspiration.

Even in works in progress, all of this is present, sitting in, floating around and shifting through the words. This is (for want of a better word) the “miracle” of writing. The agonies and the joys of influence are in the style and the structure of every sentence; its order and its chaos.

I am a person who feels art deeply. My body tells me when something is “good”. The symmetry and order created open me up to my own new ideas. Reading is its own art form. You hold hands with the writer and bring a work alive.

I understand we don’t all have time to develop our reading skills. Equally I know, just as reading something written with tireless effort is an experience of transcendence, reading slip-shod work, the writer paying you no respect, expecting you to both purchase AND make the book better, is a journey to hell. But if you choose wisely, and prepare yourself for a long, slow careful immersion, the pleasures waiting for you stretch far beyond what the writer dreamed possible. In this way, you can collaborate with any great writer that you admire. And what person, breathing and alive, would turn their back on that opportunity?


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