24 January 2012

Notes on Reading

by Kirk Woodward

[As I promised back in December, Kirk Woodward has favored ROT with another piece of writing to share with the blog’s readers. He addresses the act of reading this time, but he takes a somewhat unique point of view. I think you’ll find it interesting to contemplate this activity Kirk’s way—I know I did—and it may spur you to look at your own reading process a little more carefully than we usually do.

[I will take this opportunity to note that I took a slightly different look at books and reading in “Books in Print,” on
ROT on 14 July 2010. The topic also came up in passing in “Library Cuts,” 29 June 2010. ~Rick]

The art of reading probably won't go away, but the details of the process are changing. I used to look over people's shoulders on the train and try to read their newspapers; now I try to see what they've got on their Kindles. Before books join carbon paper, the iceman, and phones with cords in the Land of Obsolescence, here are notes on a few peculiarities of reading.


My wife, Pat, has been reading, with no pleasure at all, a currently extremely popular mystery, the first book in a trilogy. She was at it again today. I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she said, "Not a bit." "Have you been able to see why it's popular?" I asked. "Not at all," she said. "I'm not the slightest bit interested in the characters or the events." "Are you going to stop reading it?" "No, I'm going to read it to the last word." "Will you read the rest of the trilogy?" "Not a chance!"

Pat is engaged in obligatory reading. Having started a book, she feels she has an obligation to finish it. If we were to create a flow chart of her reading pattern, we would see that she is actually in a sort of what's known as a decision tree. The decisions run something like this:

Will you keep reading? YES or NO.

If NO, put the book down, preferably where it's surrounded by other books, and try to forget about it.

If YES, read it the way you would a book you like, OR

Do what I do – compressed reading!

In compressed reading, you refuse to admit that you won't finish the book. Instead, you push your way through, continually moving forward, not really reading for comprehension, but noting random points here and there, convincing yourself that if there's anything important to see, you will see it. (This technique, incidentally, also works with short stories. I've applied it to the fiction in The New Yorker for years.)

Is there any value in what I'm calling compressed reading? Maybe. Sometimes even a sentence or two can tell you so much about an author that you can form a fairly decent impression of what's going on just from a sample or two. The problem with this idea, of course, is that if you're forcing yourself to turn pages, eagerly anticipating the end of the book, you probably have dismissed the author already, and could care less about the writing style that the book displays.

Of course the principal reason for finishing a book by, basically, turning its pages fast is guilt. We feel we owe a book we've started the tribute of finishing it. It's almost as though books know what we're thinking. But they don't. Do they?

And are you reading all of this article?


Not long ago, two movie reviewers for the New York Times discussed whether it was proper for a reviewer to reveal a surprise plot twist in a film – for example (I think it's safe to use this one) that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. To my surprise, both reviewers felt it was fine to reveal a secret in a review. Their justification was, "It's part of the movie, and we're reviewing the movie."

I don't agree with them. I feel that the basic standards of behavior apply in this case. Where are the reviewers’ manners? If someone tells you a secret, you have an obligation to keep it, and if you don’t, you have an obligation to feel really, really guilty. On the other hand, the reviewers for the New York Times seem to me to believe that they're more important than the works they're reviewing anyway, so perhaps they don't feel the usual principles of behavior apply to them. I'd be careful eating next to them, in that case – they might steal my food. And if they sat next to me on the train while I was reading a mystery, I'd worry that they'd tell me the ending when they could see perfectly clearly that I was only on Chapter Four.

However, when by myself, reading a book that contains a secret or a mystery, I don't always follow my own principle. Often, that is, I jump to the end of the book and find out who did it, who survived, or what in general happened, and then go back (maybe) and read the rest of the book.

Why do I do this? Why don't I save the ending for the end? The basic reason, I suppose, is that the older I get, the less I enjoy jolts, especially when they're well done and genuinely jolting. I’ve gotten to the point where I really hate to read about people getting hurt. (This, you can imagine, makes newspapers almost radioactive.) If we live long enough, we experience plenty of jolts in real life, and often we don’t take them as casually as we did when we were younger. If we read enough, the same principle may be true.

In my heedless youth, I admired the movie Bonnie and Clyde and could talk intelligently about its artistic values, in particular the way it forced us to acknowledge our emotional involvement in violent events. Today I can't watch a violent movie at all, and have trouble sitting through a film where anything bad happens to anyone. You would think that wouldn't leave many movies for me to see, but there are some, Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris being a recent and welcome example. You would also think that I'm not the audience today's moviemakers in general are looking for, and you'd be right.

Back to books: there is another reason I often peek ahead to see how a book ends, and this one at least makes me look slightly less like a hopeless wimp. The fact is that I don't read much fiction, not because I'm not interested in it, but because I get so involved in it that I can't do anything but read the book. Work, family, everything falls by the wayside until I've finished.

The extreme in this regard, for me, was the Harry Potter books. As I became more and more involved in the series, my first reading of each successive volume became more intense, until by the seventh (and no, I didn't look ahead to see if Harry lived – or did I? I’m not telling), my reading was non-stop, with no room for trivialities like sleeping, eating, and talking with members of my family.

Interestingly, there are people who do what I do, read the end before the beginning (or middle), but for much more respectable reasons. I have always enjoyed reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. When Shaw, who was distinguished as a reviewer of books, painting, music, and theater long before he was known as a playwright, read an unfamiliar book or play, he'd immediately open it to the last few pages. If he found those interesting, he'd go back and read the rest of the work. If he didn't, he wouldn't waste time on it. He defended this procedure as eminently sensible, and although I'm not sure how much of a logical case I could make for his approach, as a practical matter I think he’s right.


I am sitting here with a book called The Word of God & The Word of Man by the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth. It's not at all an elegant book, physically speaking. I bought it on Amazon for a dollar or so. Karl Barth is a great theologian, warm, insightful, brilliant. He's also one of the most prolix theologians who ever wrote. His great work called the Church Dogmatics runs to volumes, and is complex both in thought and in language. (In English, I mean; I don't read German.) His sermons (he started as a preacher, and for years after he became a professor he preached to the inmates at a local jail) are more accessible. The book I'm reading now, a collection of essays, is somewhere in the middle.

As I said, it's not a prepossessing volume. It's a paperback, published in 1957. The binding is gone; the pages are held together by glue, and they're brown and ragged on the edges. It's seen a lot of use. Most interesting, though, is the fact that it's heavily underlined and marked up, apparently by one Robert Manther, who signed his name on the inside front page.

The thing is, I can't figure out his marking system. There's no question he feels passionately about the book. Just exactly what his thinking process is, though, I can't work out.

Two frequently used marginal marks are "K" and "W". However, "K" may not be the letter K at all. It may be a vertical line, with two angled lines to indicate the passage it's marking. He appears to use "X" in the same way, to mark – double-mark? – sections. The contents of the sections seem to bear out that interpretation – they're definitely important thoughts. And what does "W" stand for? "What"?

All the sections with Ks and Xs next to them are underlined. But some sections, apparently of similar importance, are underlined without any marks in the margins.

Robert really goes to town on pages 20 and 21. In order, moving down page 20: a section is marked "SK", and it's not underlined. Then we have a passage with not one, not two, but three vertical lines and, to their left, the letter "K" underlined twice. A paragraph or so below, we have what appears to be an upward-pointing arrow but what I believe is actually a vertical line and a meandering "X", with one sentence underlined. Continuing down, we then have the words "as if" – also in the text – written in the margin.

On page 21, Robert appears at first to have struck out a sentence, but apparently he has only underlined it a little carelessly, and marked it with both "K" and "X". Then comes an underlined passage with – get this – the letter "Q" beside it. The following paragraph is heavily underlined, and its first sentence has three X's beside it. Finally, one underlined passage is followed by three randomly underlined letters, as follows: "to the great . . . ."

I haven't yet mentioned the check marks, circled asterisks, and obscure comments ("1/1 of Chr.", "V for Bakken") that also dot the text. This cascade of marks continues throughout the book. Robert didn't just start the book, he finished it. And it's clear that it means a great deal to him. His markings are full of passion and energy. Which is not to say that I understand them.

Perhaps that's just as well. Everyone who as a student bought or borrowed a used textbook knows the dangers of being seduced into paying attention to someone else's underlinings. Even if the person warns you, you can't help paying a little extra attention to the sections that someone else, well, paid a little extra attention to. If they've missed something important, or highlighted something misleading, well . . . you get the idea.

At least with Robert's complex system of notation, I don't really understand it, so its effect on my thought processes isn't intense. I will admit, though, that I'm still drawn to his underlinings.

The whole issue of abbreviated markings reminds me of an experience I had as a brand-new secretary (or as we'd say now, Administrative Assistant) at the old Time Inc., now Time Warner. My boss asked me to make an organizational chart of our area. I found some old assignment sheets and transferred their contents to a new diagram. Wherever I saw the initials TK, I put the name Tom Kennedy – one of our people – in the slot.

My boss was highly amused, and so was Tom Kennedy, when he found out that I'd assigned him a great many jobs he'd never heard of. TK, it turns out, was and for all I know still is the abbreviation at Time Inc. for "to come." You will point out that "come" doesn't begin with the letter K, and you're right, but don't tell me, tell the people at Time Inc.

Reading my Barth book turns out to be two experiences: the experience of reading Barth, and the cryptological experience of interpreting Robert's experience of the book, running parallel to my own. All reading involves interpretation. I suppose Robert's markings, whatever they mean, help me to keep that fact in mind.

And, of course, there are the existential questions. If Robert was so interested in the book, why did he give it up? Did he retire? Did he give up on metaphysics? Is he still with us at all? Perhaps that's where Barth's theology comes in. Books are, after all, always about something.

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