someone that is lost in a library, going from one book to another, reading a series of books and not an isolated one. A reader that’s scattered in the fluidity of their tracing, someone who has all the volumes for themselves. They go after names, sources, allusions; they go from one citation to another, from one reference to another.
As you probably know already if you follow me on Twitter, I own a lot of books. Whenever I share pictures of some of my books, people ask me how I read so much. I could give a very quick answer, which is that I don't read, bear with me and please keep reading.
Let's talk about books. Books are objects which we need to learn how to use, use being the keyword here. Reading is just one way of using books, but not the exclusive one.
Our first encounter with books was probably during pre-school, or early school years. A common misconception I see with regards to books, I think comes from those early days, is that we should read books from start to finish. Never go to our next book, unless we have finished the current one. I think that's wrong.
If a book is not satisfying you, if reading it starts to be more like a chore, then drop that book. As simple as that. There's no sin. There's no hell for people that don't finish reading books. But you know what? Your time is limited, every page you read gets you closer to death (this got dark quickly). Don’t think in years. Think in how many pages you got left to read. Is it worth it to force yourself through a book, so you can mark it as read in some social network for books.
So let's talk about using books.
First we should ask ourselves what is the use I want to make of this book. I own many books that while I've read them completely, I just use them for the joy they give me. Funes el Memorioso comes to mind. The first paragraph of that text prompted me to write a whole article about it There and Back Again — On the Adventures of Reading.
I remember him (I have no right to utter this sacred verb, only one man on earth had that right and he is dead) with a dark passion flower in his hand, seeing it as no one has ever seen it, though he might look at it from the twilight of dawn till that of evening, a whole lifetime.
Reading that text in Spanish is so soothing for my mind, that just one sip is enough to calm my thirst. There's no need to keep reading the rest of the story (which is already told in that paragraph anyway).
“But how do you read a novel?” people ask me. It depends. Use comes back again. It depends on the novel. There's “mass market novels'' let's call them, and then there's literary novels. Some literary novels might have made it into the mass market, like Hundred Years of Solitude or The Name of the Rose. In any case, if it's a mass market novel, and I'm in the mood for following a longer story, then I'll probably read it from start to finish. In the case of literary novels, I'm usually too lost into the details of its structure, the way the author uses language or what literary devices are employed. Also, I'm always on the alert trying to see what kind of “intertextual irony” the author is using, like Umberto Eco explains in his essay “Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading”. So sometimes after playing with the book for a while, seeing what kind of games are possible, I just leave it to rest in my library for another time. I don't need to spend all the joy in one sitting. The Dictionary of the Khazars is one book that comes to mind when I think of playing with a book.
There is no order for reading books
Another misconception about books, related with the read-from-start-to-finish one, is that we should read them in order. That we shouldn't skip ahead. Most of the time when I read non-fiction books, I continuously skip ahead to see where the argument is going. Again, time is of the essence, so I'm not sure I should dedicate another half an hour to a chapter that's not taking me anywhere.
Then in non-fiction, we have many books that are collections of essays. Why should we read those books in order? Just grab whichever chapter caughts your attention and go for that one.
As Barthes says in S/Z:
we gain access to [a text] by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.
A text is a device that depends on the work made by the reader to come to life. We are the ones that give the text meaning, that interpret it, in ways perhaps never imagined by its original author. We are in this “tireless approximation” towards meaning as Barthes says. Which brings us to our next topic.
When we read we bring to the front of interpretation all the books we have read. We re-read them together with the text we are reading at a particular moment.
That's why if a book makes no sense at a particular time, or we can't just dig it, it might be because we haven't read the text that prepares us to understand the other one. Another reason to stop reading a book if you are not enjoying it for whatever the reason.
This “I” which approaches the text is already a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite, or more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost).
Reading is about letting the current text evoque those meanings that are already there in our minds that come from other texts that we have already read. Reading is a constant re-purposing of knowledge. We need to read many books to be able to understand one book, and in an act of différance that one book will change the meaning of those other books.
Books are Labyrinths
Imagine trying to traverse a labyrinth. Faced with a bifurcation we have to decide which path to take. One of them is wrong, the other one helps us get closer to the exit. Taking a wrong path shouldn't be seen as a mistake, but like a way to learn what's the right way to go. If we are methodical we'll eventually find the exit. Finding meaning in a book is similar. Most people are interested in the fastest path from entry to exit, feeling bad about the detours, when in fact detours are what helped you move forward. They want to share a clean path across the labyrinth graph. But meaning and knowledge lay in the whole graph, not one path. That's why there's not a single interpretation of a text. Those paths not taken might hide some meaning that we missed due to our chosen route.
Espen Aarseth writes:
when you read from a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices, that is, exactly what you missed.
As Barthes says, reading is as important as re-reading. And when we re-read the entry point doesn't matter. He even goes as far as saying that there's no first-reading.
Let's close with Borges and The Garden of the Forking Paths:
At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.
So you wanna read books? Read them whoever you want, five pages a year, or the whole book in one sitting. Leave it half read, and come back to it five years later. You'll be more versed traversing labyrinths so the next half will feel more like walking in a garden.
Reading is about freedom, and among many things, the freedom to choose what to read next.