ars longa, vita brevis
Send blog submissions to email@example.com.- This post is a part of our Editors' Corner, blog posts written by editors. This is also Part 2 of a series of blog posts related to reading, written by Managing Editor, Zoe Ramos (see Part 1).
Pictures by Zoe Ramos (unless otherwise stated), taken at Mary & Jeff Bell Library
I hate sounding like a pedant. I really don’t think I know anything, and I hope this never changes.
That said, the objective of this blog is to provide a place for the sharing of ideas, without judgement and without trying to live up to any expectations.
I am going to advance my thoughts on Unconventional Reading Habits (see Part 1 for more background) with some tips for reading meditatively, for pleasure and for catharsis of some sort. However, I will definitely diverge from this subject.
Please don’t judge me for my imprecise language sometimes. Imprecision is a way to capture what cannot be said and allow it to hang unceremoniously off of what can. It’s better than tossing out ideas that don’t have good words for them yet. Wordless ideas are what good ideas and truly new ideas live in (this is purely logical deduction).
These tips are written for every sort of reader, writer, and editor.
To read like a writer, read twice, four times, continually.
The most cultivated writers I know are in the practice of reading texts twice, sometimes more. This doesn’t mean you must read everything twice. Just like pacing, reading frequency is something that arises from reading style.
In general, reading a text a second time is most enriching if you allow yourself a space of time after the first read. By this, you can tune into different details and aspects of the text the second time around.
Also, the controlled variable is the book, so you can perceive how the variable of you the reader might have changed from the first read to the second. This is especially important when you are a writer because you are in the business of breaking into your psyche more and more, so that you can learn how to break into the collective psyche. If you are able to break into the collective psyche, you can help listeners/ readers of your work do the same. The words you put out there are more than just fiction, they are the silent waves of what can be.
I know that "breaking into the collective psyche" sounds a bit violent, but great art is often violent, in a way. Personally, I prefer my poetry to be somewhat assaulting in its affect. I have explained this desire to other writing friends by remarking that I never want my writing to peeter out or extinguish, in a way, by its end. Writing should inculcate something in a listener/ reader that is inextinguishable. And some of the greatest works of art I have encountered have been so discordantly beautiful that they make me sick to my stomach (figuratively speaking).
Great art is like a hallucinatory drug--- when you take it in, it can be pleasing or displeasing, but either way, you are permanently changed. You are changed because you have never experienced anything like it, so your mind is piqued for learning as opposed to customary, energy-conserving passivity. Art is blunt force trauma to the mind.
Double-reading a text is also exploratory; there are a lot of books that are just so mesmerizing and mystifying that a second read is just a way to eat more of what the book has to offer, as though the meal is never ending.
Really, it is fruitful to read any book more than once. The only requisite is that you believe in there being more than what meets they eye to the "meaning" of literature. In a way, the pleasure of literature is one of the most immaterial qualities in this life that you will interact with. Because as I said, books will always have more to offer... if you simply believe that they have more to offer.
Travel lightly as a reader: relinquish absolutes.
But wait, you might say, if a "belief" in there always being more to literature's meaning is so important, is there really any fundamental value or truth to "meaning" or theme in literature?? If no interpretation ever closes the case, so to speak, can the case be closed? If not, is interpretation a waste of time?? Is interpreting literature just making stuff up?? I think that this is the perspective folks that don't appreciate literature/ art tend to have: there's no point to most art, it can be interpreted in literally any way, art is mostly stupid.
But as a lover of art and literature, I want to say that interpreting literature does indeed require you to "make stuff up", and this is not a flaw; when you interpret literature, you speak on what it means to you and the world. There is no other you, so there is no other you+the world. The intermingling of the you--your history and mind-- with the everything-other of your culture and environment is so rare and single. In honoring it while interpreting and reacting to art, you are manifesting something completely onerous.
Great art, great literature and an appreciation of it allows you to wield tremendous power,... because you position your interpretation as a predicate for future interpretations and thoughts. When you put your interpretation into the world, or at least carry it in your mind, you shape your reality. You also change the world for the people that come after you, either by sharing your thoughts or by interacting with the world. The power you have as a carrier/ sharer of thoughts is so great, its precise effects will never be completely knowable to us.
Don't be afraid.
Whatever you do, don’t misconstrue great and unfathomable literature as formidable and exasperating.
Really, "greatness" and "formidability" are reactions to the same silhouette. The nuanced differences in these words, the wonderment versus a sense of danger, are accounted for and set by the reader's emotions. The same is true for "unfathomability" and "exasperation". But also here, "exasperation" is a reaction borne from hopelessness and inability. That is why developing a sense of "will" is such a critical precondition to reading with pleasure.
Meaning is not just about vocabulary or sentence structure comprehension. Meaning is the willingness to allow for a resonance to take place between the words on paper and one’s angle of perception. Sometimes, it takes more than one attempt to feel for an understanding of a text, especially when the text is of an unfamiliar style or viewpoint. But there are no bad readers, just unwilling readers.
It may be confusing to think that one’s inability to like or understand a text is because of “unwillingness”. Such implies that one is choosing to dislike/ misunderstand, and this is clearly not so. But I believe that “unwilling” is a useful word because it reminds me that there is an ability we carry to like and understand all, but we haven’t yet become aware of it and we don't know how to perfectly understand and employ it.
Trusting in “will” is nothing but an acknowledgement of the limitlessness of what can be,... even if we will never fully realize or feel that limitlessness. We are not limitless beings ourselves-- we are creatures, built by nature and reparable. We are motile and growing but never fully convalescent with limitlessness. And this a good thing, because if we were fully whole and limitless ourselves, there would be nothing to change, nothing to go from here to there, no vantage point. Art would be a cold, dead symbol, instead of the liveliness it is today.
Didn’t I say I would diverge.
I am not an expert at reading. I have my days where I cannot read a single word because my brain just won't cooperate. But I am not discouraged. Instead, these times make me aware that I am not present enough, not willing to dwell with a text and hold its hand through it's wheezing and soft speaking long enough to produce meaning from it.
I say “produce” because as I mentioned, each reader has a unique interpretation of every text. There can be overlap in terms of what one is inspired to feel by a text, reader to reader,… but there is always more to be said. It is difficult to become aware of the more, and it is even more difficult to put it into words. But once you do, you have created something from nothing, defying thermodynamic principles without even trying to.
This reminds me of dark energy and how space is literally being created moment to moment, as the universe expands at an increasing rate. In explaining dark energy, it is typically said that the stuff we live in is becoming increasingly dilute and we don’t really understand why. But "dilute", as I mentioned, also indicates creation of something else. Again, this is pure logic, because as the universe expands, there is more and more "space" between the stuff, such as matter.
And as I've heard many times on Daniel & Jorge Explain the Universe, "space" in our universe can be analogous to the sea water that fish live in; as the anecdote goes, one fish swims by another fish and asks them "how's the water???", the other fish pauses for a few second and finally replies "just what the hell is water???"
The joke is that fish have no idea what water is, even though they are constantly surrounded by it and completely reliant on its physical properties. In fact, "water" is not even a concept for fish. In a similar way, it is very difficult for us to think about what "space" really is, materially or otherwise (material is generally considered massive stuff, but not everything in the universe has mass).
If you feel dumb for not understanding what dark energy is how it could act in the ways it does, rest assured that nobody knows why or what “dark energy” really is, including the physicists that study it and give it that name. That is why you should feel perfectly comfortable not understanding but still trying to. Don't believe the lie that you are a fake, unworthy of your own thoughts just because you don't know everything.
Don’t overthink “meaning”. Savor the meal.
When you can’t “understand” a text, as many students complain about,… it is as though you are made of something and the book is made of something else. As though it was made of dark matter (not the same as dark energy), you can’t seem to interact with the book. The forces you feel don’t interact with the text you try to read. The book is imperceiveable except by a mental outline, or an odd bending of light by gravity. The obscuring outline only tells us that something is there but not what it is or what makes it so different from us that we can only witness to it in secondary ways.
When you second-guess your ability to understand a text, or you worry about the "correct" interpretation,... you are disincluding yourself from the universe of that book. The book becomes invisible to you: it doesn’t reflect or absorb light, and you are not compelled to keep reading.
Furthering this analogy, you yourself are also invisible to that literature; if you think you are unworthy or unable to understand a book,... you are sort of saying that the physical facts are fundamentally different in the universe of that book. This is a problem because our use of touch, or any of the five senses, are all useful only in a world made of the same stuff. We are always and only interacting with stuff that's made of the same stuff (quarks) that follows that same set of rules (even if we don't know all of the rules, which we definitely don't).
Because I introduced the analogy, I have to add that even dark matter interacts with the gravitational field, meaning that it probably has mass. This is why gravitational lensing occurs (pictured above), which is probably the biggest support for the existence of stuff called dark matter. Thus, dark matter must follow some of the same rules that our bodies do and regular matter does. If it didn't, it would be literally nothing in our universe, it wouldn't be able to be inside our universe in any way. And it wouldn't be a concept possible for us to have, I think, because every concept we are capable of having must in some way be connected to our world of familiar principles ("familiar" as in akin to us, next to us and at the same time a part of us; not necessarily known to us). And our bodies of sensory perception are tempered, given thought and behavioral propensities, only by things connected to this world. Because how would our sensory bodies even be capable of assessing what it outside of this??
But as always, these are all my ideas borne from subjective perception. And I think I might be talking solely to myself at this point.
Regardless, the fact that dark matter seems to interact solely with the gravitational force has significant consequences for everybody. For one, dark matter is most likely the reason that galaxies like the milky way form and stay together. Without the massive pull of dark matter's mass, we wouldn't be all packed into a twisting galaxy, because we don't have enough regular matter to do this ourselves. Our sun would be lonely, without any galactic friends. We wouldn’t see anything when we look up in the sky and actually, we wouldn’t be here without the environment provided by our solar orbit.
So maybe dark matter “sees” us much better than we “see” it.
"Astronomers have just assembled one of the most comprehensive portraits yet of the Universe’s evolutionary history,... Each of the approximately 15,000 specks and spirals are galaxies, widely distributed in time and space."
Maybe these are the main takeaways: You know more than you think you do if you just knew it. You can know it just by knowing it. And books are primed for connecting with you. Books love you because they wouldn't be what they are without your eyes. You can experience this just by believing in your ability to connect with them and the value of your connection
Literature has a complexion of obscurity. It can be feared, celebrated or overlooked and still be the same.
It is a common saying that literature is alive. It is alive because it does not have a single interpretation. Ever. Even if an author thinks their book has a clear, intentional “meaning”,… it would seem impossible for a book to have a singular meaning. If this were so, every writer would have to be perfectly aware of their choices and what every single word evokes in every single person. And no author is all-knowing, even if it seems like they think they are.
If you think about it, an attachment to meaning is really the antithesis of art. Because it is thoroughly inefficient to attempt to control the meanings of ones art. Such is like making up one’s own language as a requisite for writing a book.
And for a reader, it is also fruitless to pretend that you know the absolute meaning of a book. It is like trying to describe the anatomy of an entire new species while only ever encountering a tiny limb or cell that makes it up—you are bound to mistake a tiny limb for the large being you study, and you will do nothing but talk about limbs over and over again. (This is another analogy that I have borrowed from Daniel & Jorge. Thanks guys.)
by Zoe Ramos Jmj
- In Part 1, I talked about how to reclaim a child-like love for reading after the high school/ college hustle has drained it from you.
- Would you like to write about reading, too or add to this discussion? Have you always wanted to write a book review? Please send your blog post (up to ~1500 words, no minimum) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Beginners, unpublished writers, and unclassifiable enthusiasts are welcome to share, as well as more experienced writers.
- Thoughts on reading as a meditation and reading for writers. By Zoe Ramos, Managing Editor of Windward Review. Read more from our Editors' Corner, blog posts written by editors.
Photos in this post are by Zoe Ramos, taken at Mary and Jeff Bell Library, TAMU-CC.
I am bad at reading. There, I said it. I am a graduate English student, an aspiring writer and editor, and I am bad at reading. Growing up, I loved to read, but I just wasn’t one of those people that could devour a book, cover-to-cover, in a single day.
I guess you could say that I am easily distracted. Entering a university seven years ago only made this even more clear to me. Taking English classes, I found I could read 30 pages into a novel and absorb nothing. In my science classes, I could apportion out 2 hours of time to get through reading a chapter of a textbook and only get 10 pages in. I was only able to understand dense material by taking assiduously typed notes and then memorizing the notes themselves.
I don’t think that I am the only one with reading problems, or the only one that felt like a dumb kid for not being able to make it through A Tale of Two Cities in the ninth grade. But luckily for me, my love of writing always brought me back to books, no matter how much I felt like I was bad at it.
Regardless, now that I am older and wiser, I have come to realize that all of my reading issues stemmed from not being able to quiet the mind. I was never really a bad reader I was just bad at fixating on reading points, reading level, and vocabulary level, when these were the only means to measure aptitude. But before these outward measures of reading ability were over-emphasized to me, I had no problem enjoying reading in any setting.
It is no wonder that children are often the greatest lovers of books, because reading requires a childlike sense of humble devotion to the written word. I would liken reading to a meditation because you can only absorb material if you make yourself fully present for it. Kids can be great at this because they have nothing practical distracting them, such as emails they need to write or a dentists' appointment they need to make. And reading cannot be a means to an end, it must be a means and an end. In fact, reading is best done while one forgets that time even exists.
If one is marred by the attitudes of adulthood, such as a fixation on utility and efficiency or a sense of time, one may find reading to be a chore. I want to write about my unconventional reading habits in a couple of blog posts (in a few Parts; you are currently reading Part 1). Not everyone will like or need my suggestions, in fact some of my suggestions may even verge on the sacrilegious for the most devout readers and lovers of literature. Still, my hope is that some will rediscover a childlike pleasure for reading. Also, these tips are especially helpful to writers because I am a writer and editor myself.
Reading: It’s not just about getting from point A to point B.
Because I am a student and a lot of the readers of this blog are students or have been students, I will note that much of the reading one does as a young adult is against ones will e.g. because of reading assignments in one’s classes. Also, I know firsthand that so many of us are overloaded with responsibilities and it can be very difficult to get assigned readings done in a comfortable fashion. A lot of the reading in college, unfortunately, happens the night before an exam.
These are all reasons that if one is not careful, going to a university can make one forget their love for reading. In fact, one can forget what reading really is, and how much it’s not about getting from point A to point B.
I think that most people are intuitively aware that a book is more than the sum of its parts. For example, when a student is very strapped for time, there is a temptation to read a summary of a book rather than read the book. A summary is a very helpful relation of the general plot of a book. At the same time, it is clear that the book itself is not equatable to its summary. The way the words are put together conduces to an entirely unique beast that can only be experienced and cannot be completely captured by a description. In quiet irony, there is a wordlessness to every book, just like the wordlessness one may seek to experience through meditation.
I think that we all know this, but I think it’s helpful to remind oneself just how much a collection of ordered words has to offer. Not even an author understands what they have given the world by writing.
I like to think that some time in the far future, there will be a better understanding of what it is that artists really do and how writing is important, instead of just chalking it up to art for arts sake. Not that there’s no credence to art for arts sake, but I believe that what writers do is much more tangibly useful than anything that can presently be articulated. Art is and always will be above its time, because it is a process that is so close to the human soul that we couldn’t leap to connect it to the tangible world quite yet, not while the world is still so broken.
Pacing: read fast, read slow, it doesn’t matter, but know that pace is what sets the quality of your understanding of that book.
I have always been one of the slowest readers. This was true even during grade school when it seemed to be a mark of intelligence to speed through books, build up reading points and win a box of crayons or stickers. I always thought that being a slow reader meant that I was a bad reader.
At this point in my life, as a graduate student, I am still a slow reader; it takes me twice as long as my classmates to read a complex essay, for example. But I no longer think that this means I am a “bad reader”, if those words even mean anything. Instead, I realize that I am just the kind of person that has to know what they are reading. I cannot force myself to read an entire chapter or an essay if I do not have the foundation to settle this reading in my mind intellectually. I need to be able to first grasp where the author is coming from and what their background is. Otherwise, where am I to place this knowledge? Do I even have a place for it yet?
Instead of reading clear through a chapter or an essay, I usually take breaks at every point that I have questions i.e. What does this vocabulary term mean precisely and which field does it come from? What other essays have been written by this scholar? How do these theories compare with other theories on a timeline of development? Because of my willingness to let a reading take time, I find that I am able to understand texts very deeply and I don’t have to read a book but once before I can write an essay on it.
As a reader, I prefer to devour texts. But it is also perfectly valid to read a text more quickly and less deeply. For instance, if you are reading a technical book, such as a book on circuit analysis, it can be assumed that you cannot completely consume the subject matter anyways. So it is helpful to skim through the book, taking in the main points. The expectation is that you can learn more later when you are working with the actual technical knowledge, for example by working on a technical diagram.
But whatever your preferred pace, feel good about it and don’t let anyone tell you your slowness or quickness is fundamentally wrong. In fact, if reading is a meditative process, there must be no wrong way to do it. The only "wrong way" is the assumption that there is a "right way".
We are inviting you to process your experience through art as we gather voices from all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, every sexuality and race, and to allow the freedom to share your voices and your truths. We hope that you enjoy the writings we have collected here. Moreso, we hope you feel moved to send us your own writing about persevering through the current times, or perhaps some of your own insights on the art of writing itself. Here at the Windward, we strive to be an open, affirming community, and as such we desire more than anything to hear from you.
--Natalie Williams and Celine Ramos, Senior Blog Editors