Reading Like a Writer03-01-2013
How does one read closely on the internet? I ask this question as I prepare to co-host a series of conversations on “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual” with my Bard colleague and blogger Walter Russell Mead. What we hope to explore in these talks with bloggers and writers-who-blog is the impact of blogging, tweeting, and online writing are having and will have on our public culture of thinking.
Our first guest in the series is Francine Prose, author of 16 novels and numerous essays and non-fiction books, not to mention a children’s book. Prose also teaches as a Visiting Professor of Literature at Bard, and, she blogs for the New York Review of Books.
I first sought out Francine Prose years ago because I kept hearing amazing things from students about her class, “Literature, Language and Lies.” I was captivated by the course description:
Throughout history, written language has been used to create masterpieces and to pump out propaganda, to delight and delude, to reveal and obscure the truth. But unless we read closely--word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence--it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference. In this class, we will close-read the short stories of great writers (James and Joyce, Cheever and Chekov, Mansfield and O'Connor, Beckett and Bowles, etc.) as well as this week's issue of The New Yorker and today's copy of The New York Times as we look at the ways in which words are used to convey information and insight, to transmit truth and beauty, and to form and transform our vision of the world.
My own courses focus on close readings of books and often I teach an entire course on one book that we read slowly and carefully. I teach a course on Plato’s Republic, another on Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphsyics of Morals, one on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and then courses on Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her The Human Condition. In these classes, students meditate on single words for an entire period, sometimes for a week. We pay attention to metaphors and allusions, deepening our understanding of the full work by tarrying with individual parts. There is a tradition of teaching this way in philosophy and also in political theory, but one rarely reads the New York Times that way, and Prose’s course struck me as deeply provocative.
I recently picked up and re-read parts of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, her book full of examples of the kind of slow and painstaking reading I imagine she teaches in her course. It is full of careful and powerful sentences that remind me of what writing can and should be:
And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.
It is a book comprised of readings of excerpts from texts; there are beautiful meditations on the richness of certain words and examples of the power of sentences as well as the expressiveness of gestures. Prose celebrates revision, editing, and craftsmanship. She points out how to read and shows that reading is training for thinking and writing. Of course, she can make one feel guilty for not reading with care and for writing too quickly. She admonishes at one point:
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint.
As Walter Russell Mead and I conceived our series of discussions on the impact of blogging, inviting Francine Prose made great sense. Blogging offers many things, but one thing it does not promote is the kind of slow, word by word, sentence by sentence reading that Prose defends. Not only does it not promote such reading on behalf of readers, but also for bloggers themselves, who are under incredible pressure to post frequently and quickly. There are different kinds of blogs, of course, but the most popular blogs all post multiple items every day and compete to break new stories quickly. Speed is part of the blogger’s world. And yet, even Prose is blogging today.
The need for speed in blogs is less true for cultural blogs, like the NYRB blog (or even the Hannah Arendt Center blog, where we don’t usually rush posts out to beat a news cycle). And yet even here one of the advantages of blogs is their informality. Blog posts do not typically go through the process of editing and revision of essays in a conventional journal. While we do edit some of our blog posts especially for first-time or new writers, the editing process is quick and informal. There is not the usual relationship between a writer and editor that can seek to hone an essay over weeks or months. Blogs are fun, often short, and easy to read. Perhaps they can attract wider audiences and rile the waters more than crafted essays, which are often toned down by editors who lop off the ragged edges. While blogs offer much, they are not honed with the precision of a full-blown essay to be published in a popular magazine or an academic journal. In short, the increasing prevalence and influence of blogs suggests a threat to both the reading and writing for which Prose is such an advocate.
For this weekend, put down the computer and pick up Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. And then come join Francine Prose, Walter Russell Mead, and myself for a discussion of “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual” on Tuesday, March 5, at 6:30 pm at the Bard Graduate Center (38 West 86th St) in NYC. You can RSVP Here.