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Shifting literacies

February 10th, 2009

What reading is meant to be

Two steps inside the door and I either had to veer to the left or stop at the “here’s the new stuff we expect will sell pretty well” table. I opened the first page of the first book I saw whose title was in bigger font than the author’s name. It’s worked in the past, but not this time. What I read was held together by poetic references I just didn’t get.

When you’re drowning in text, it’s probably natural to think you’re the problem – if only I knew a bit more stuff, I’d recognise the references. I suppose you could try to fix your inadequate self by enrolling in some kind of course but there might be ways around the problem that rely less on deficit thinking:

1. Ignore all obscure references

Simply read right over the top of them and go hunting for bits you do get. This is all very well but doesn’t quite fit if you think reading is about taking risks, about facing and experiencing the unfamiliar.

2. Make sense of them in your way, even if you think it may not be the author’s way.

This kind of behaviour will get you into trouble with some literary theorists, though – the ones who insist that any allusion understood in a way not intended by the author is a misreading (but you’re probably safe to practise this kind of subversion in the privacy of your own head). And besides, there are plenty of theorists who say texts can be read at various levels, so missing a few of the author’s intended meanings doesn’t result in the text being unintelligible to the reader.

3. Think of Anton.

Chekhov, that is: cherry orchards … “Is that it?” endings. He knew what reading was all about: “When I write I rely fully on the reader, on the assumption that he himself will add the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here was a man who actually thought something was missing until a reader comes along with all their subjectivity, their fabulous “baggage” (a middle child with a fear of rats, an inclination towards sugar, an aversion to obsequious shop assistants …) and uses it to help make sense of the text.

Remind yourself of Chekhov, then, whenever you get to a really dense bit – a bit that makes you suspect you’re not quite smart enough. He’ll reassure you that the writer’s job is to put the text out there in the world so readers will add themselves to the mix and make some kind of sense of the whole thing. This is what reading is meant to be.

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