I retweeted earlier today a quote by P J O’Rourke: ‘Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ Currently I’m in the middle of, near the end of, or just about starting, several different books (examples currently piled on the bedside table: Brion Gysin’s The Process, Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames, Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics?, a collection of essays edited by Ian Bell on reading Ezra Pound, a recent Reaktion Press biography of Poe, David Bellos’s biography of Georges Perec; then there are more in the living room …). Some of these are re-readings; some are new obsessions; some random charity-shop finds. While I care little whether I’ll look good if I die in the middle of this pile, why I get involved in this largely pointless but somehow satisfying feat of literary juggling has been bugging me for a while now. Why can’t I finish one book before I move on to the next one? Why am I lured away from one book before completing it, to another, from which I’m then lured again by a third, and so on? Am I going to finish all these books soon (when? how soon? which ones first?), and how big will be the pile that replaces them?
This readerly situation, a kind of pleasant overwhelming, is partly to do with the nature of my book-buying habits, which have evolved (due to economic, political, addictive, and recently new-baby-related, as well as other causes) in particular ways that militate against the logic of what I’ll call sequential text completion, centering instead on chance finds, temporary obsessions, momentary but irresistible drives to completism in relation to an author or genre or movement. These have also, not incidentally, impacted in different ways, I suspect, on exactly how I read, which is what I’m concerned with here. But it’s also something to do with the nature of reading itself: simultaneously sequential (following words across the page, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter, section by section, until the end (‘The End’), and then taking up the next text to repeat the process; and diversionary, drifting as one reads from the middle to the end of the paragraph and back, focusing, losing focus, refocusing, skipping sections and then returning to them, noticing repetitions that make me turn back to seek the half-remembered earlier instance of a word or phrase, and so on. I read more than ever before, it seems, but what I read and how I read it – on the page, online, in books, in downloaded journal articles (I don’t have a Kindle but Apple’s iBooks winks at me from the bottom of this screen as I type) – is constantly mutating, bringing its own new kinds of what used to be called distraction, which are I think rather productive, enabling new interactions with texts that redefine both reader and the texts one reads.
At a conference a year or two ago one speaker presented some interesting scientific research into the cognitive activity of reading that made use of eye movement mapping, tracing the eye as it scanned a page, marking its movements forwards and backwards across texts containing surprising words, so that the tracked eye jerked back and forth at certain moments. This suggested a particular grasp of how we read sequentially and via diversions; but it didn’t address how the act of re-reading a text with which one is half-familiar might differ from the fresh encounter with a previously unread text, nor did it explore how differently motivated readings might differ in such an analysis – a student or critic performing a ‘close’ reading while sat at a desk, say, from the less rigorous or more languorous drift of the casual reader’s eye across the page during a train journey. I find myself on occasion somewhere between these exemplary extremes; unable not to read critically and thus, I hope, carefully and closely (it’s a professional and private habit, but what ‘carefully’ and ‘closely’ actually mean is becoming for me increasingly uncertain), but also drifting through the books while I’m reading them, distracted productively into a different kind of readerly interaction with them. Each book, for example, rubs off in unpredictable ways on those I read around it; Gysin’s magisterial late-modernist prose, imbued with wide cultural knowledge and a kind of mid-century American colonial confidence, bounces off the colloquial bourgeois Parisian of Zola, well-rendered, I think, in the translation by Robin Buss that I have; Peter Nicholls’ thoughts about reading Pound’s Cantos refract and intensify, even apply, some of Calvino’s limpid arguments about reading itself.
Reading functions, of course, as a complex signifier of a variety of interconnected attributes (which are also difficult, attention-demanding preconceptions) to do with cultural health (ill-read, well-read), wealth (poorly read), and metaphorical breadth of experience (widely read). It’s a signifier of gender and class (it’s to do in part with available leisure time and perceptions about how best to use it), and education (being bookish; as a mate of mine once said, ‘You must have been crap at English at school if they’re still making you do it at university’). So we tend conventionally to see reading as a cumulative and teleological action, just as we read these different attributes in terms of volumes, quantities, degrees. But, thinking about this pile of books I’m currently failing to read completely, I’m wondering these days about the significance to my own grasp of what reading means of the incompleted reading, of the unfinished, partly-read text, the book found on the shelf many years later with a railway ticket stuck between pages 422 and 423 indicating a failure to finish something once significant enough to spend time to read 420 pages of it, and the trace of that failure marked in the text as it suddenly is, on its rediscovery amongst other half-read, half-finished books, in the memory of the failed, incomplete reader.