Sunday, January 24, 2010

HOW WE READ: The Physical Setting

One cat is sleeping in my reading chair and the other cat is sleeping in my other reading chair. Someday when I'm rich I'll buy me a third reading chair so I'll have a place to sit and read. What do I read? It’s hard to explain, but I start with the newspaper, which I enjoy tearing down the fold and throwing on the floor as I go. But even before that I read my email and automated news aggregators on the computer, which is part of the reason I don’t fuss about the cats very much, except when they try to sit on my lap when I’m typing. While I read and write on the computer, one cat sleeps under what was originally my computer lamp and the other sleeps in the fan slipstream from the computer. That’s in winter. In summer they go out to cat nests in the grass or sprawl on the bed.

Writers these days spend a lot of time agonizing over content and media -- sometimes content VERSUS media -- but they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about HOW readers read. I become conscious of it when my female cousins report in. There are three who read constantly: one who reads my blog daily, one who reads it occasionally, and one who reads it only if I copy and email. (We are all descended from two sisters named Welsh who emigrated from Scotland and followed various paths.) The one who reads my blog has a busy and young family. Her reading is short intervals, sometimes at work (she’s a librarian for a school system and works projects rather than running one job in a library) and she’s often already on a computer. When she reads books, they tend to be prestige books, literary. She knows that my blog mode is a thousand-word daily essay on almost anything and she would probably write a similar one if she had time.

The other two (both retired) consider the household computer to “belong” to their husbands. The husbands are happy to print out things of interest and leave them on their night-tables, which are already heaped with books, because that’s where they read. One cousin, who “goes to bed” pretty soon after supper, describes “bliss” as a lovely warm soft bed in a nicely decorated bedroom with good light and lots of pillows. She reads to escape, mostly, and this, I think, is the core of the female/fiction consumer focus of Manhattan publishing. The reviews on, which used to be diverse and surprising, are now predictably by younger women who praise books only in terms of a submersive experience: they were grabbed, couldn’t put it down, read late into the night, totally forgot everything else, entered another world, had their emotions raised to new heights, and so on. (Near sexual.)

I’m unclear about whether my cousin watches television except for news or movies except Netflix, and we have a running joke about whether any specific movie or book is “Jeannie-friendly” since she considers the real world so ugly, hostile and tragic that she wants nothing to do with depictions. (She taught special ed for a long time, which forces a person into this kind of a world.) However, with her liberal friends, she enjoys getting into a frenzy of rage about how stupid and self-defeating politics is. Then she withdraws into saying it is “depressing.” (This is a legitimate point of view, but it’s not mine -- mostly because of the difference in our mothers. My mother’s natural mode was attack. If she started getting angry, you had better go someplace else.) But, she’s intelligent and trained to seek information, which is the other kind of books she reads: how the money system works, brain theory, some politics and history. This is where we overlap. The other cousin does much more with the style-history of couture and interior decorating than Jeannie and I. She’s big on Jane Austen and the BBC.

We like books because they are the usual venue of what we want to read and of HOW we read. But my bedroom is cold and spare, except for the electric mattress pad, for sleeping only. I read in a chair with a strong light, nearby tables for hot liquids, an ottoman, a heating pad on my back (Jeannie does that, too.), a cat on my front, and a down throw over my legs. Recently I listened to a book on CD, Jonathan Harr’s “The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece,” beautifully read by Campbell Scott. I could be flat on the sofa for that, but there is some risk of falling asleep and missing parts. The cats, who migrated to my stomach, didn’t mind.

In the Saturday Review of Literature, which used to be the benchmark for culture, men read books with their pipe and decanter at hand, seated in leather club chairs at the hearth of a wood fire with their hunting dog at their feet, relaxed now that it had fetched the slippers. These men did NOT take notes, underline, fetch reference books, or even highlight, since highlighters had not been invented. They might scribble in the margins. Tastefully. They did not read paperbacks.

Today’s academic readers need tables for piling up the auxiliary materials, the stickies and highlighters, the legal pads for notes, and so on. If they have an ashtray at hand, they will be rebuked unless it’s for pot. (That’s hip.) Does anyone drink while reading anymore?

One of the best-read men I’ve run into was on the road all the time, driving 18-wheelers across the American West. Actually, he was listening rather than reading. Since he was driving -- and I expect “books” interfered with his attention less than talk radio or mobile phones -- he could hardly read a Kindle. When he was actually in a bed, he slept. It’s commuters, either daily bus or train riders or long-distance air travelers, who can relate to vids.

Many of us go through the day with music -- I do -- interspersed with talk radio, including stories read out loud. Being (ahem) a high-grade person, my listening is NPR or PRI. It’s how I time my tasks. I was interested that the Haitian violinist who was trapped in rubble for days could mark time by playing concertos in his head: he knew them note-for-note and the length of time each took. Prisoners have spoken of using poetry in a similar way, or math problems. I don’t think many people can remember word-for-word prose books but if they could, it would give new meaning to the concept of “escapist fiction.”

1 comment:

prairie mary said... This post by Motoko Rich in the NYTimes is sort of related but kid-focused.

Prairie Mary