Writers on Writing #70: Nate Pritts
Dear Reader(s): The Art of Generative Reading
I’ve always been a pretty aggressive reader, fanatical, approaching the page with constant zeal. Maybe I’m not quite in the same category as Henry Bemis, the guy from the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.” Rod Serling’s opening narration describes him as ”a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock,” and he seems pretty happy when a nuclear blast wipes out the rest of the world, giving him a chance to finally catch up on his reading. Obsessive and put upon, Bemis turns to reading as an escape, mostly, whereas for me reading has always been an activity that is as much about what the words I am reading actually mean as it is about the riffs and rhythms and impressions that present themselves. It’s an art that helps me feel more fully the real ground I’m standing on.
I have vivid memories of hunkering deep in one of the far stacks of my middle school’s library, so much like your middle school library!, feverishly turning pages as the bell rang to signal that I had skipped one class and would soon be skipping another. These days, I get up before the sun so as to spend time reading before anything else encroaches – though I use up a good many daylight hours reading as well!
And though I read some of the same things I always have, in many of the same ways – paperback bricks, floppy comic books, poetry titles austere and slim amidst the din of spines on my shelves – I also read online, as we all do, using my computer screen or one of many many devices designed to replicate the feel of analog reading.
For a few years now, we’ve been hearing a lot of talk decrying the change in our reading habits as a result of all the time we spend online. Nicholas Carr fired the first shot, or the blast heard loudest, in his seminal work The Shallows. He contends that even people reared on analog reading methods (good old print on paper), with fond memories of “strolling through long stretches of prose,” were being “rewired” through constant Internet use, unable to read for more than a few pages before turning all twitchy and jittery.
But what if the fault, my Dear Reader, is not the web (or in the devices we use to endlessly navigate the sticky strands of it) but rather in ourselves? We are at a moment where we’ve forgotten that reading is not just a utilitarian skill, a brute way to get from the left of the page to the right.
We don’t often think about the process of reading. We just do it. We point our eyes in the direction of some symbols and then let our minds decode and process them. It’s an autopilot function. Whether we’ve got a hefty novel on our laps or a scrolling Twitter stream on our phone, many of us tend to approach the reading of those things in the same way. It’s a binary switch. We’re reading or we’re not reading. As a result, many of us struggle to adapt to the material at hand, get fidgety and restless, find ourselves unable to engage in the right kind of reading for the situation we’re in.
We’ve so fully migrated online, specialized in this new method of reading that we’ve forgotten the pleasures that come from other types of reading. It’s the jittery dart and glance method we’ve developed for reading online that frustrates us when we try to get enmeshed in the deep narratives of a novel or the lyric space of poem or any form in which a writer paid attention to grammatical and syntactical deployment in ways that we gloss over. But we don’t have to give ourselves over to despair.
Whether it’s to retain information or for the hazy enjoyment of getting lost in a narrative that’s not your own, we should be able to sharpen our attention, our styles of reading, tune them like the instruments they are, and apply them. Nicholas Carr imagines his brain has been literally rewired by prolonged exposure to the ‘net, and that he has lost his old deep reading abilities. But I think maybe we’ve just let our muscles atrophy a bit.
For many people, a little self-check will help right the ship, a dose of mindfulness and attention when you next open the browser window or turn back the cover. Think about what you’re reading and how to read it. Be intentional in your actions. I always encourage my students to use active reading strategies. Whether they are reading online or on the page, I tell them to keep a pen in hand or their fingers hovering over the keys. I tell them to mark passages they want to remember or feel some kind of connection with, to indicate ideas they are struggling with. What I am really telling them is to wake up, to remember that they are doing something on purpose, with intention.
The truth is that I don’t really care if they fill notebooks with Cornell notes or apply the latest amalgamated acronymic strategy. But I do care that they turn the television off, take their ear buds out, stop orchestrating a variety of texting interruptions all at once, and maybe even neglect their social media profiles for just a little while.
Still, I feel a little disingenuous asking my students to pay attention to what they’re reading since, to me, that’s only ever half the job. While active reading might represent a step up from the shallow skimming we’ve grown accustomed to as a result of our constant connectivity, it has its limitations. If we focus on reading as a process whereby the reader gains information, the act remains utilitarian.
And, if we allow ourselves to get lost in the escapism presented by any text, letting the words on the page orchestrate a reality which we allow to supplant our own, we’ve hit another wall. We’ve written over our sense of the world and replaced it with someone else’s.
It seems to me that everything we read creates a field that can help us think more clearly, better, differently. It’s as if the words on the page hold two kinds of energy. There’s the intentional energy, the denotation of the words that create an array of meanings and ideas, the plot, the information. It seems like, these days, it’s tough enough to apprehend even this surface layer of any text. But this is only one stop on the descent into a deeper entanglement with the text in front of us.
I prefer the residual energy, the lingering sparks. Fueled by the rhythms of the sentence, the plot and the word choice, the ideas and their associations, I use the author’s words to guide my own meditation, to embark on a reading that is speculative, discursive. I work to understand the plot, the directions, to assess the information that’s being presented. But through a willingness to blur meaning and intention in a soft focus, I’m able to create and inhabit my own experience of literature through this generative style of reading.
I think poetry is designed this way, that the poetry on the page is meant to give way to an imaginative world, separate from the ego and consciousness of the writer. Practiced with mindful intention – both the reading and the writing – it’s a vehicle for transcendence. But any reading we do has the potential to unlock the same kind of discursive energy as long as we maintain focus on the substance of the words in front of us as well as the array of implications they represent.
There are some looming essential questions we need to ask ourselves when we read, whether analog or digital. We need to know whether we are reading for information or for pleasure, whether we are trying to pass the time or more fully experience it. And, regardless of our answers or parameters, we need to make the commitment to read generatively, to inhabit the text without abandoning the world.
It was snowing hard when I left the house this morning and I slid on glaze ice to stop at the intersection. I took a look to my left, before making my right on red, could see a stream of slow cars oncoming. But, because I’m a neglectful window scraper, I had to look through thousands of droplets of ice pebbling the glass. I shifted my focus and looked right at the ice itself, the grain of it, before shifting again to look at the cars. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about, this intentional shifting of focus. When reading a passage, stay alert for the cars coming at you, information so important it can literally mean life or death. But give yourself permission to look at the field of ice flowering in your path, the blank that gives a glorious texture to the moments you spend.
Nate Pritts is the author of several collections of poetry, including the full-length Right Now More Than Ever and the forthcoming chapbook Pattern Exhaustion. Poems have appeared inAmerican Poetry Review, Southern Review, Court Green, Forklift, Ohio, and many other journals. He founded H_NGM_N, an online journal & small press, and continues to serve as Director and Prime Architect for its various endeavors. Nate lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York.