Ways of Reading

I got the inspiration for this article after reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (read my review). It’s a remarkable read for many reasons and that’s precisely what inspired me to think of this topic.

This article dives deeper into how the perspective from viewing painting as art can also translate to reading books as fuel for the imagination.

Reading deserves to be considered as a category, on its own. Not many people realize reading for what it is and they just see it as something one does when they have a book in front of them. But I believe that reading can have many layers and we, as readers, should be able to read better, and not just effectively.

This brings me to another very recent revelation. Which is that the nature of reading for every individual person is very subjective. You can’t expect to quantify your reading skills as being more or less superior than anybody else. Let go of the idea of finalizing your reading habits as something that will always be the same and that it’s bound by fixed rules.

This upgrades and elevates the act of reading into a multi-layered and unique dimension. A dimension where you also have to entertain the possibility that you can be a good reader, a bad reader, and a little bit of both.

I think what reading does to a reader must be synonymous with what a book does to a reader. And I strongly believe that as your reading habits evolve with effort and awareness your experience of reading a book changes.

To make more sense of this concept of reading about reading, I recommend you to read an important book on the subject; it is The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf.

The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf is a collection of essays. They’re essays about Literature, about decoding their forms, the value of reading, and so on. Her writing connects the dots between a book and the mind of a reader. How, and I quote, “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.”

Virginia Woolf begins and ends on the same philosophical and meditative note. That reading is a reward in itself but loving the act of reading can be a profound reward also. This is where the path to reading separates a bit. As a reader, I’m not only dependent on the book to provide a keen and intricate source of knowledge. But I’m also counting on my reading skills, my instincts, my thoughts to guide me upon what I read.

The essays are straightforward and very well-written. It is a bit intimidating to read about reading. The reason why this is true is that it taps into unknown territory. It’s not at all common to deconstruct reading by itself as much as it is common to read about books that change your perspective on life.

Here Virginia Woolf wants you to understand literature through the very same lens but the common denominator is the act of reading and not books.

To be able to exercise this idea into fruition, here’s one of my favorite passages from the book:

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.”

This passage is from one of her essays, “How Should One Read a Book?” and from it, it’s obvious how and why reading a book is itself worth the effort of contemplation. This is one of the best books on literary criticism that I’ve read recently. A genre that is specific to reading books about books, if you will.

I haven’t read many literary criticism books. Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? comes to mind. In it, Italo Calvino states a few obvious but often overlooked facts of reading books. He talks about the extraordinary pleasure of reading a book in youth and then in maturity. And at every stage, how we gain something new, something different, something that mirrors what we think and how we are. Perhaps even what we aspire to be at a particular age or state of mind.

Another necessary takeaway from this book would be to ask ourselves how and why we use the term “classics” for books that most of us have either read or heard of. Rather, Calvino shifts the perspective a bit.

Very similar to what Virginia Woolf reminds us in The Second Common Reader, Calvino wants us to meditate and draw from the infinite possibilities of literature. Deriving meaning and purpose and intention from books not because they’re great works of literature but because we’re, in fact, reading them.

I would also like to mention Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (read my review), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others as some of the best books on literary criticism.

Getting to the point of this article, I want to explore the different ways of reading. Taking inspiration from The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf… perhaps even Ways of Seeing by John Berger, here are my two cents on the ways of reading.

1. Reading like a writer

Sometimes I feel I’m a much better reader because I write. And in moments I feel I’m a much better writer, for myself, because I read.

I think we’re more conditioned to rely on the latter. It stems from the need to constantly attach usefulness and value to whatever we do. But only the kind of value that brings returns.

If I do a particular thing, what am I going to get out of it? But in case I don’t get anything from it, I make myself believe that it was a total waste of my time.

I recently shared this thought with a friend of mine and had a similar response. It’s very common to think that if you read you’ll automatically be able to write well. That may or may not be true. But what about being able to read better because you write?

That’s the genius that gets left behind.

2. Reading without expectations

Virginia Woolf questions this very sentiment by asking and I quote, “what laws can be laid down about books? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for oneself.”

That’s not to say that reading without expectations is the easiest thing to do.

It’s ironic, I know, but the lighter the burden of reading, the better the reward.

But to get there is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to unlearn and learn as a reader. That’s the beauty though, letting go of expectations, I started to realize there is no goal. No life-altering or ground-breaking revelation.

I couldn’t keep waiting for books to do something for me. That sense of attachment or dependency that we harbor deep inside us… it will eventually turn toxic. If what’s true for human relationships, I think it just as well translates to the world of literature.

3. Reading without bias

This is a tough one to learn.

Reading with any preconceptions about what you read and are going to read. From the first sentence to the last you have to deny delusions.

What H.P. Lovecraft calls, and I quote, “judicious reading,” I think also extends to reading without harboring any kind of assumption about what you think you know about literature.
And we do this even with books we know nothing about. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why nobody ever reads books they don’t know anything about. It’s the personal bias that pulls you back from exploring more complex and challenging books.

I feel the weight of this kind of reading all the time. As a reader, I’m so sensitive and protective of my instincts, that if anything stands against it, my first reaction is always to protect my own feelings rather than accept the ones that are brutal but at the same time sincere.

I felt this recently when I read On The Heights of Despair (read my review). Though the book is radically existential. It was the metaphorical ax to the frozen sea of despair within me.

When Kafka said that we ought to read books that wound or stab us. Or that if we read books that don’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? I strongly believe this is what he meant by it.

4. Reading like a sponge

James Baldwin wrote that “your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world until you read.” So the feelings that torment us the most are the feelings that have already been written down. Only it takes the whole of us to be able to recognize that fact and draw breath from it.

When I say reading like a sponge, I mean empathy. But also I mean acceptance, awareness, and mindfulness.

I might be reiterating, but I did say something similar in my previous “How Do I Pick Books?” episode. That if you continue to keep what you already know, you’ll never get anywhere. Much in the same manner, if you read only what you relate to, you’re never getting anywhere either.

Difficult books put you in a difficult position. But that only means you can begin to learn and unlearn the driving force behind all the noise. Every page is as filled with words as you want them to be. And vice versa.

Good reading depends much on the reader as good writing does on the writer.

This for me makes more sense only when I allow myself to open up in the presence of a book unlike anything else is when I can receive what the book is literally or figuratively aiming at giving me.

On that note, I bring this thought, and this episode to an end, with another one of Virginia Woolf’s quotes:

“If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The weight of the world is heavy, it is not kind, and it is even harder to forget. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, this weight of the world is manifested through vivid and passionate words. He re-frames the stories we’ve read everywhere else about the American Dream. How this delusion places humanity on a pedestal and designates the role for each one. In his own words, “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” The book highlights the neglected and shunned history of America, the discrimination, the brooding falsehood that binds the bodies that live within it.

Translating emotions on paper is like revisiting a long-ago memory, enough to submerge you in its sentience and necessity. What rises up to the surface is a shadow of your past self communicating with your present self. Time’s boundaries become blurred but you are still aware of how they manipulate the shadow lines and how they fall, one on top of the other.

Between the World and Me, which is an open letter from Coates to his son, evokes the path of growing up; of each passing year bringing a new revelation, a new lesson. So unique and reassuring is this experience of living that it shapes one’s essence and substance. And yet it’s never the same for any two people. Even if the soil that holds the seed in its palms remains the same.

This open letter is painful, beautiful, and endearing. Ta-Nehisi Coates mixes nostalgia with redemption and paints a much bigger picture for the truth that is the American Nightmare. The unimaginable injustices, the wakeful agony that lulls people to sleep far and away, erased and invisible, from dreaming in the wake of a more prejudiced and enslaved Dream. That, and the way Coates typifies his childhood for his son’s, has overwhelmed me in a way letters rarely do.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell evokes the simple pleasure of reading myth. “Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be.” These words feel more intimate here in Stephen Fry’s Mythos than anywhere else.

Here is a collection of stories that define each other; a plethora of fantastical, imaginative, and captivating myths that demonstrate the rise and fall of gods and the liberation of the world from chaos to order. And vice versa. You’re better off if you let your imagination run wild while you sit back and enjoy. 

The structure of the book is simple and straightforward. The writing is not dense, as most (if not all) Greek mythological texts can be. Rather Mythos is a sharply toned down version of the ancient myths. As you get acquainted with every god and divine creation, Stephen Fry has retained that sense of familiarity that we all adore about mythical creatures. I found it quite clever the way he has distilled and manifested some of the most complex Greek hierarchies into a digestible and entertaining spread.

Zeus, Kronos, Prometheus, Pandora, Hera, Echo, Sisyphus, Narcissus. It’s an absurd re-telling of myths that contain whole universes. I wouldn’t think of Mythos as a philosophical read. Rather, I see Mythos as a more imaginatively contemplative book. The book is deeply rooted in exploring the aliveness of the universe. And how one should see it as a lyrical and meditative journey to experience rather than extract any concrete reasoning from it.

A book like Mythos doesn’t muzzle the complexity of ancient myths. But it is helpful if you want to test the waters in a less intense book. Thanks to the audiobook that Stephen Fry himself narrates, my memory of Mythos is colorful, dramatic, and witty. Having said that, Mythos isn’t the most thought-provoking and intelligent book on ancient myths. But that’s a thread for me as a reader and I don’t think that it takes anything away from the book.

Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

A homage of any kind, be it in words, in thoughts, or in life would be incomplete concerning Simone Weil’s genius and her intellectual wisdom. 

This is one of the few times when my love for philosophy, that somehow defines this absurd and vague “I” that I am, has been made perfectly clear. Simone Weil is an enigma. Perhaps one could say that Simone Weil didn’t write the aphorisms that make up Gravity and Grace; the truth is that they wrote her.

Taking into account Simone Weil’s love for contradiction, her “being and becoming” is nothing but the “being and becoming” of the mechanism of space, time, and relativity for which she became. This relationship between a self and the universe and the bridge that connects both worlds makes up the spirit of this book. The law of gravity is as contemplative a theme that Simone embraces to illuminate the deeply rewarding act of grace that man has forgotten to extend inwards. Simone Weil writes that man understands himself so far as he transfers his sense of reality into things. This breeds attachment which accompanies man into a state of absence. What man must strive for is solitariness.

This is just one example out of so many others that Simone Weil weighs upon us. The weight of which is provocative and so terribly good. Her philosophy of emptiness, the renunciation of a self, the temptation of imagination echoes the tenets of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, perhaps even Kierkegaard though in a contradictory sense.

What makes reading Gravity and Grace necessary is the sense of detachment and ironic intimacy she ignites in the reader. It harbors no doctrine, no universal truth, no religion. Just a way of being and getting to the roots of becoming. Her writing re-defines the beautiful and the omnipresent.

Reading Natsume Soseki

Natsume Soseki’s literary world consists of the ironic threading together of human consciousness that is more omnipresent than fleeting in relation to Japan’s familiar other-worldliness. Having said that, Japanese fiction allows you to harbor a gentle, kindred spirit of the interior life. It creates these dimensions that comprise of surreal, interesting, and intense personal lives. To me, nothing surpasses the influence of such artistic and interior life stories. The heart of which remains subjective and soulful for anyone – the familiar and unfamiliar in equal measure.

If you haven’t read Soseki, you’re in for an incisive and fantastically refined exploration of the human mind. His writing discovers and lingers on the expandable dimensions of time suffused in reality. Driven by the mania and complexities of human nature, when you juxtaposition his Eastern and Western lens of living, you realise how completely transformative and memorable Soseki’s stories are.

Convincing and shocking, the polarised narratives seem unreal and real, at the same time. His stories are confronting, by nature  and – keeping Kokoro in mind – is even harder to come to terms with once you understand its motives. Soseki helps externalise fear, angst, and the innate, instinctual recesses of the psyche. Finally, his fiction grants you a microscopic view of life. All the blots and gradations that intensify suffering and nullify it.