Books are bullies. They can really rough you up. At one time or another some badass book has made just about everybody run home to Mother.
And why not? If you stood your ground it was never a fair fight. The book had all the advantages: Symbols you couldn’t decipher. Metaphors that were a mystery. Irony. Obscure rhetorical devices. Sentences so tedious, so intolerably convoluted, they turned your mind to mush.
Sometimes the words were flung onto the page like birdseed from a park bench. Other times the prose was so rock-hard you couldn’t break through it with a backhoe.
If you’ve ever tangled with Kant or Kierkegaard or Heidegger you probably know what I mean. Not to mention Finnegans Wake or the late novels of Henry James. Or, heaven help you, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, To the Lighthouse, T.S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, As I Lay Dying, Gravity's Rainbow, John Ashbery, Roger Penrose, or A Brief History of Time. Books and writers like these can make practically anybody cry uncle. Even Jonathan Swift and James Fenimore Cooper, once thought to be children's authors, are not for the faint of heart.
That's one side of the story. Books are lovable, too.
Did someone read to you as a child? Dad? Grandma? Your kindergarten teacher? If so, you know how words can warm you, wrap you in their mellifluous embrace, how they can jiggle and dance and come to crazy life before your mind’s eye. And even if, reading-wise, you had to go it alone, chances are you can look back fondly on late-night rendezvous with Dr. Seuss or Nancy Drew or Albus Dumbledore. Books were your friends.
As you grew older you continued to crave the companionship of books. But the books you prized were grown up too--worldly, mysterious, out of reach. Maybe you were afraid they would laugh in your face. So maybe you took the easy way out: “Those dumb old books don’t have anything for me. I'm better off over here by myself.”
Deep inside you knew better, for who hasn't longed to be literate?
There’s something about the really well-read. Intimacy with books creates an aura of authority, of imperturbability, of—let’s face it—infuriating self-assurance. We envy the literate their intimacy with the limitless world of words. We are mesmerized by their smooth repartee, their razor-edged wit, their refusal to be cowed by blowhards and know-it-alls. We too would like to pluck the perfect riposte out of the air. Most of all, we yearn to view the human panorama with fresh eyes—to gaze on people, places, and happenings beyond the ken of strangers to written word.
If we’d had the luck to be born Adamses, Brontes, Huxleys, or Jameses, we’d have gotten a first-rate head start, the best possible leg up on literacy. Coming of age in a bookish clan we’d have imbibed eloquence at the dining room table or while being dandled on Grandpa’s knee. But such advantages belong only to the precious few. (Nowadays how many of us even have dining room tables?) So when it comes to reading, writing, and speaking we pretty much have to fend for ourselves.
There’s a bright side. Advanced literacy can be acquired--if necessary against tremendous odds. Think of young Benjamin Franklin copying out Addison and Steele, Abe Lincoln poring over borrowed books by firelight, Malcolm X in his prison cell, memorizing the dictionary. And not only these paragons. Finding out how to speak, read, and write like an expert is within the reach of us all. A healthy measure of literacy can be achieved by practically anybody.
Not that it’s easy. But you don’t need to tackle it all at once. Only one of the literacy skills is crucial.
The key to them all.
It's the first of the three R’s. When you’ve learned to read--really read, not just pass your eyes over the page—you're ready to write at an elevated level. And speaking too is easier when you’ve figured out how the written word works. Think of it. Each of us can peek over the shoulders of the most eloquent wordsmiths in recorded history just by opening their books. Could we ask for a better chance to polish our verbal skills?
Needless to say, mastering the written word takes exposure to how it’s done—and lots of patient practice. Above all it takes persistence, the kind that comes from a deeply-rooted faith in oneself and one’s mentors. This goes for literacy at the expert level, as it does for any skill that’s worth mastering: speaking Italian, hitting a golf ball, whipping up a soufflé. Not everybody has the luck to grow up in Fiesole or the good fortune to be named Nicklaus or Mickelson. Few have Emeril’s private number. The rest of us need to push especially hard if we want to perfect our skills. Maybe it’s just as well. Independent, challenging work, pursued against odds, can bring intense satisfactions. If it were otherwise even more lost souls would be slumped in front of the TV, subsisting on bonbons and the QVC.
The usual way to acquire a difficult skill is by taking lessons. These come in two very different forms. Call one "immersion," the other "coercion." You’ve probably had plenty of the latter. It’s what happens in many classrooms. First you’re taught something—how to diagram a sentence, say, or organize a paragraph—and then you’re told to work an exercise, take a quiz, or fill in some blanks. It's the same on the practice range: a golf pro explains the ideal chip shot while you look on with your hands in your pockets.
Sure enough, "coercion" can teach you a lot.
But if you’re lucky somebody will just put a golf club in your hands and get out of the way. The theories can wait for later, after you’ve smashed a few windows. Because not everybody wants to listen patiently to some fellow in polyester pontificate about the overlapping grip. Lots of us just want to whale away.
Maybe you’re one of these people. If so, you’ve come to the right place. If “coercion” were going to work for you, it would have done so by now. You’d be as literate as hell and ready to compose your own book on how to read like an expert.
If, on the other hand, you still have a bit to learn, and especially if you’re fed up with being kicked around by really tough books, maybe it’s time for you to renounce “coercion” for “immersion”--to learn by doing and leave the general principles for later. After all, immersion seems to work fine for newlyweds, not to mention boot camp and Berlitz. Why not for one’s native tongue?
That’s why this book starts with real writing by real writers—and ends there too. In between, you'll find something many experts leave out: word-by-word explanations of exactly what’s going on in black and white. What the writer put on the page.
You’d think that’s where the experts would start, with the words on the page. If they’d show you real writing in action, pretty soon you’d get the hang of it yourself. But often that’s the last thing on their minds.
It’s really quite amazing how some experts can rattle on about books while pretty much ignoring what’s right before their eyes. If you don’t believe me, spend an hour in a university lecture hall, or peer into a critical text. What are you likely to find? Some adenoidal assistant professor pontificating about literary history, or theory, or how to dig symbols out of a book like raisins from a bun. As for the digging itself—the experts leave it to you.
And that’s just not right.
Because digging is the hard part. Blathering about irony or symbols or, ugh, “logocentrism”—why, to tell the truth, that’s easy as pie. It’s almost always easier to talk about something than actually to do it. On the other hand, showing how real language works on a real page—that’s as tough as can be.
So the format of Extreme Reading is unique. Each chapter opens with a passage from the writings of a different author. You are shown how the passage works, often within a paragraph or two. Out of this comes a technique for future use. (Think of the technique as a tool, a fresh way to dig into difficult books.) In each chapter of this book, a new set of reading tools is explained and applied to further passages. As you go along, you collect more and more of these tools. As the tools accumulate, they help you delve deeply into new and more difficult writings. Ultimately, they will equip you to tackle the toughest books of all—a skill you will find useful long after you’ve polished off Extreme Reading.
In general, the passages analyzed here progress from the mildly challenging (Robert Frost) to the virtually incomprehensible (Martin Heidegger).
Our first chapter opens with a few lines of verse by Frost and Robert Burns, our second with a passage from the autobiography of Russell Baker. What is learned from Frost and Burns is applied to Baker. In turn, Frost, Burns, and Baker inform our reading of the next writer, Sophocles, the Greek dramatist. And so on. Each chapter yields fresh analytic techniques. Chances are you will need them. The last chapters of this book bring you face to face with the writings of several fiendishly difficult authors, including one who claimed almost always to say the opposite of what he really meant—as a matter of principle! By the end of Extreme Reading, you will be armed and ready to take on books like these--the toughest books of all.
Over the centuries humankind has accumulated a priceless trove of lasting literature. We have many more first-rate books than anyone can possibly absorb in a single lifetime.
What we don’t have more than enough of are first-rate readers.
The plain fact is that great writers need great readers. History shows that without a pool of capable, demanding, highly literate readers, writing begins to atrophy.
This is one reader’s effort to help enlarge the pool.