Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The importance of being an earnest reader

Stray thought of the week: while walking to the train this evening, something made me think of a particularly stale truism in a student's paper of long ago, something like "keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart."   My thought, God knows why, was "would the kid who wrote that have wanted to read something like that?"  Maybe -- perhaps he found  earnest aphorisms reassuring. But maybe -- this was my thought while walking -- he just didn't like to read, and didn't expect to find anything that would move or instruct or engage him while reading, and essentially thought that all written text was just a bunch of pretention or bromides passed off as wisdom, bound to bore.

The basic thought is that early on we all probably develop one kind of relationship or another to the printed word that conditions our response forever after unless or until some reading experience fundamentally changes it.  For myself, while I have reasonably active bullshit radar, I think my default stance is a trusting one: at the outset I grant authors authority.  I expect to be informed and instructed. I'm a twelve year old, and the writer is the adult. That relationship can be ruptured at any point, and not necessarily in a bad way: I can be in awe of what the writer is accomplishing and still see the gears grinding, or the partial point of view, or the thematic obsession or tic (e.g., in Rick Perlstein's wonderful Nixonland, the repeated unsupported assertion that Nixon was suffering shame at the allegedly "soiling" experience of pandering to various groups).  Or, of course, an assumption that I regard as false or perhaps just threatening can have me fighting all the way, mentally composing a response as I read if I don't stop reading altogether.

I'm not sure that I have much of a point here, beyond the earnest, obvious early education goal of getting kids turned on to reading (by being read to) early. Maybe it's that the kind of writer each of us becomes is conditioned by the kind of reader we are -- which is not quite the same as the still more obvious fact that we write or try to write like the writers we admire most. 

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