The Text That Chooses You

https://www.wikiart.org/en/carl-spitzweg/the-book-worm/

The Book Worm by Carl Spitzweg (1850)

 

Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them. 

Not quite.

Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.

Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.

That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.

Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author, lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k). Continue reading

Hazelnuts in the Chocolate Text

Characters in yellow by Paul Klee (1937)—resisting uniformity

 

Endless walls, endless trains, endless clouds.

Uniformity, monotony, apathy. They make for drearier reading than a blank page (at least a blank page is hope’s canvas). Hence Kurt Vonnegut’s counsel to aspiring authors:

Make [your] characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

(From his interview with The Paris Review in 1977.).

Needs must when nature drives.

Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?

Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.

Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading

Writing What Will Not Be Read

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DvorakReader.jpg

Reader by František Dvořák (1906)

 

In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.

Every word is intended for effect.

No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words. 

(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English. In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwards is still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)

But who judges what’s necessary in a text?

A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis. Continue reading

Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease

https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-honore-fragonard/a-young-girl-reading-1776-1

A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1776)

 

Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language. 

Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)

While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates. Continue reading

Cutting Through Language

https://www.wikiart.org/en/wassily-kandinsky/gentle-accent-1934/

Gentle accent by Wassily Kandinsky (1934)—one way to think about the deep layering of language?

 

Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.

It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.

These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).

The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …

—John 10:27–28, KJV

The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:

Ho! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number, ho!

—Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 3.2.16

(These and many more examples are offered in Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech.)

The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).

Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.

Commas hold an asyndeton heap together.

A proliferation of commas, however, can signal crisp yet complex writing not comprising of homogeneous sequences. Continue reading

Reading Speed: Aristocratic

https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-art-of-conversation-1950-3/

The art of conversation by René Magritte (1950)—slow down, look. Rêve is dream in French.

 

In an age obsessed with saving time, reading speed is increasingly scrutinised. Brevity, clarity, immediate relevancy—done! Click on the next link.

The prize is gratification at the price of linguistic mystique.

Lyrical novels are the obverse. Looping descriptions, metaphors upon symbols upon embedded stories, resonances with previously unexplored feelings and questions questions questions—not done! Not done, even when the last word is read.

The prize is linguistic mystique at the price of gratification.

The dichotomy isn’t so obvious: lengthy thrillers immediately pertain to the specific goal of fun pastime, as do mystery novels; on the other hand, short poems resonate for years, as do certain “clear”, brief statements or questions (traditional sayings, koans).

In fact:

One. This dichotomy isn’t drawn between nonfiction and fiction, or between genre and literary, or between prose and poetry.

Two. This dichotomy isn’t about the words per minute one person can read compared to another.

Three. This dichotomy isn’t well-defined.

Four. A better-defined dichotomy is that of renown French literary critic, Roland Barthes, who divides the world of texts according to one of the two systems of reading applied to each text.

 The translator, Richard Miller, makes clear that Barthes’s original Pleasure of the Text is far more titillating than the English version. (The book, after all, centres on the explicit, almost erotic pleasure that can be derived from a text.) If there’s one reason to learn French— Continue reading