Further Reflections on Reading Widely


“It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. “Christopher Hitchens in interview (his last) with Richard Dawkins, New Statesman Christmas Issue, 2011

At the risk of repetition, I’ve decided to revisit the topic of reading widely and its necessary compromises, though with less of the resigned contentment this go around.

I’m on this subject again by virtue of time, and the fact my habits have changed: whatever control I lack in my writing I haven’t lacked, lately, in my reading. Despite clawing to crack open The Big Sleep, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Half-Blood Blues and others, I’ve decided to shear down my intake considerably before giving in to first-page temptation, which is the reader’s Easy Button as far as I’m concerned, except more words line its surface, and they’re always changing. And this button has little function by itself.

It’s interesting. On one hand, not spreading myself so thin has allowed me a cleaner focus on what I place before me; yet, I’ve been reading a lot less – a lot less – nevermind the width of the net. Not indulging whim of late has brought my eyelids a shade lower, honestly; I know already how some of my appetites are possessed by indulgence, my need to shop hungry, however ill-advised. Books just may, for me, be another of these.

“Then gradually, as he sat there, his thoughts turned to a picture that had long been stored inside him. The cold, green ocean, and a hot gold strip of sand. The little children playing on the edge of the silky line of foam. The sturdy brown baby girl, the thin little naked boys, the half grown children running and calling out to each other with sweet, shrill voices.” – The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

I walk through stories as I would waves, letting them break over and under, beside, wherever. What they “mean” matters the same as how mean they are to my balance; how animatingly cold; how much a tonic of warmth or blow to the lungs.

Perhaps most writers trust too little and too often the world’s causal talent, how this talent is rawer than its contexts; perhaps I trust it too much.

It’s true that the ghost of a work (ironically what gives it its life) becomes clearer the more one immerses, the more one hermetically seals themselves inside and away from all else. But as I’ve expressed before, I think contrast from outside helps rather than hinders the outlining of that ghost, and the consequences lie in how we balance in from out. Maybe the timing of a work’s entrance into our life appears to matter so much (and I think it does matter) because the “out” is constantly changing, as are we, the work a static variable while the rest is not. 

“He dreamed as well. A diamond turned on his forehead. A tree. He was a landscape. He was covered with trees. He was the Yaak. He was Glacier. He was all the tremendous valleys of western Montana, cloud shadows grazing over him. Storm fronts broke against his nose. He was sparsely populated. He was a city. He teemed with highways and lights. He dreamed he had a sister, a beautiful girl, and in the dream he reasoned out that the girl was Rachel and what he was actually dreaming was a spirit inside of his, a sibling she’d never had, a son. He dreamed that we all contain so many masses and that people are simply potentialities, instances, cases. That all of life can be understood as casework.” – Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson

I do worry – as I mentioned last time – that I only ever gain a shallow understanding; I know it to be the truth, in fact. But I also know that one doesn’t have to swim all the way out to sea, or even know how, to understand – at some depth – its power.