Writers on Writing #114: Bernadette Geyer
Two Ways of Reading a Book
And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? --from “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” by Mark Twain
In his famous essay lamenting what is lost in the acquisition of knowledge, Mark Twain begins with a look at his own transition from a youth seeing the beauty of a sunset on a river to a man who can read omens in a “mark on the water” that signifies “a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat.” Twain ends his essay professing a pity for doctors and speculating as to whether physical beauty can still be appreciated by someone who has learned so much about the body.
We writers are encouraged to get degrees in our craft, to read essays on craft, and to read just about everything published in the genre of our craft. Does that necessitate a loss of our ability to see the beauty of the written word as crafted by another writer?
When I read Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society---an epistolary novel structured as a series of letters---it struck me that this device choice enabled the authors to succinctly transmit details about World War II by having characters ask each other questions about their experiences, while weaving those details into the responses. Another device choice was the setting. With many of the characters located on the island of Guernsey---cut off from communication for much of the war---it became plausible for them to not understand references to common wartime terms, or to pose questions that would fill in further details about the war.
In consciously recognizing the importance of these device choices by the authors, I suddenly thought “I can no longer read a book without seeing the author’s hand behind it!” After studying and learning so much about the writing process, I realized that I can no longer read a book in only one way. I can no longer read merely for the pleasure of the act of reading.
When this struck me, I was temporarily concerned that I would never again read for pure enjoyment. Twain’s essay came to mind. But as I reflected on his pity for the doctor---and melancholy over the loss of his own ability to see the beauty of the river---it came to me that the pity was misguided. Just as there are “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” there also exist “Two Ways of Reading a Book,” and we should not have to restrict ourselves to only one.
For instance, all magicians know that they practice illusion. Magicians have sacrificed their ability to see only the “magic” of a magic show. They have learned the tricks-of-the-trade and can recognize them when watching fellow magicians perform. Yet, there are magicians who inspire the wonder of other magicians through the grace of their skills, and the art and charisma with which they captivate an audience. There are magicians who are so good that even other magicians can’t figure out how they do a particular trick. There are magicians who admire other magicians even though they themselves know the tricks.
And that is why, after much reflection, I have come to gladly accept and welcome my inability to read a book without noting the tricks-of-the-trade that are apparent to me as a fellow writer. Knowing the tricks has not taken away the magic of a book, but has enhanced it, just as I imagine the doctor---knowing all that he or she knows about the workings of the human body---can marvel that, despite all of the medical reasons it should not, the beauty of the human body continues to exist.
Bernadette Geyer is the author of The Scabbard of Her Throat (2013) and editor of My Cruel Invention: A Contemporary Poetry Anthology (2015). Her writing has appeared in 2015 Poet's Market, Oxford American, Poet Lore, The Writer, and elsewhere. Geyer works as a writer, editor, and translator in Berlin, Germany. Her website is http://www.bernadettegeyer.com.