Christian McEwen, World Enough & Time, Chapter Six: Intense Rendezvous – The Joy of Reading:
Compared to drawing and carving, the making of pots, and the weaving of baskets, reading is a relatively recent human accomplishment, dating back no more than fifty-two hundred years. Unlike speech, which is acquired by easy osmosis, reading is not something that comes naturally to most of us. Instead, it must be learned, slowly and painstakingly, by each successive generation. The eye works its way across the page in little jumps, known technically as “saccades,” pausing at intervals like a frog on a lilypad, in order to ingest the next new word. As science writer Simon Ings explains, “The eyes literally cannot see stationary objects; they must tremble constantly in order to bring them into view.” Whereas listening is relatively fast (one needs only a hundredth of a second between sounds in order to distinguish them), looking takes far longer (one needs at least a tenth of a second between two images if they are not to blur), and reading takes longest of all, requiring a full quarter second for each individual word. Reading, then, involves a considerable amount of work. Literate Greeks and Romans preferred to have their books read aloud to them by slaves, and Saint Augustine was actually startled when he first saw Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, reading to himself in silence. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent, and his tongue was still.”
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Such reading is especially effective in the case of poetry, which by its nature has much to do with slowing down. The poet Mark Strand writes of the pleasure of “reading the same thing again and again, really savoring it, living inside the poem.” Because there’s no rush to find out what actually happens, the reader can luxuriate in the texture of the words themselves. As Strand explains, “It’s really about feeling one syllable rubbing up against another, one word giving way to another, and sensing the justice of that relationship between one word, the next, the next, the next.”
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The real scholar scarcely knows what “study” means, since reading provides such rich uncomplicated pleasure. Lin Yutang describes the scholar Ku Ch’ienli (1770-1839), remembered for reading Confucian classics naked on steamy summer days, and the literary critic Chin Shengt’an (1608-1661), who liked nothing better than reading a banned book behind closed doors on a snowy night. Absorbed in their books, such dedicated readers may appear to be doing nothing at all. An eye blinks, a muscle shifts, a hand reaches up to turn the page.
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“I learned then,” said Lusseyran, “that poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine . . . one of the rare, very rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred. No one had taught me this.” In the weeks that followed, he gave himself over to a daily poetry campaign. He would stand on a bench at midday, just stand there and recite poems. Passersby would stop, press in around him. He could feel their breathing, the relaxation of their muscles. And “for several minutes there was harmony, there was almost happiness.”
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“James Tate explains: While most prose is a kind of continuous chatter, describing, naming, explaining, poetry speaks against an essential backdrop of silence. . . . There is a prayerful, haunted silence between words, between phrases, between images, ideas, and lines. This is one reason why good poems can be read over and over. The reader, perhaps without knowing it, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks into the other world where the unspoken rests in darkness.”
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(Mary) Oliver took to the woods, lugging a private knapsack full of books. Down by the creek or in the open meadow, she read and reread Whitman, “my brother, my uncle, my best teacher,” reveling in his ardor, his enthusiasm, the glorious specificity of his words.
But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. . . . I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company. . . . I remember the delicate, rumpled way into the woods, and the weight of the books in my pack. I remember the rambling, and the loafing—the wonderful days when, with Whitman, I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time.
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Rose Macaulay: “Only one hour of the normal day is more pleasurable than the hour spent in bed with a book before going to sleep and that is the hour spent in bed with a book after being called in the morning.”
- Photo: Arnold Smulders (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)
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