We Are All Children in the Art of Reading

I recently finished reading Prayer for the Living, a short story collection by the great Nigerian writer Ben Okri (author of the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road). My favorite story in this collection is “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading.” In this story, the iconic character Don Quixote has somehow been transformed by Okri into a modern African seer who, among his other adventures, has battled Boko Haram terrorists.

The story takes place in a printer’s shop in Lagos, Nigeria, where the well-read Don Ki-Otah expounds on the books he’s read over a long life, and his varied tactics of reading:

“In the course of a fifty-year reading career . . . I have experimented with 322 modes of reading. I have read speedily like a bright young fool, crabbily like a teacher, querulously like a scholar, wistfully like a traveler, and punctiliously like a lawyer. I have read selectively like a politician, comparatively like a critic, contemptuously like a tyrant, glancingly like a journalist, competitively like an author, laboriously like an aristocrat. I have read critically like an archeologist, microscopically like a scientist, reverently like the blind, indirectly like a poet. Like a peasant I have read carefully, like a composer attentively, like a schoolboy hurriedly, like a shaman magically. I have read in every single possible way there is of reading. You can’t remember the number and variety of books I have read without a compendium of ways of reading.”

In this extraordinary passage, we see the act of reading as fluid, not set in stone. Yes, we read from left to right (though up and down, and right to left are the preferred modes of other cultures), and we turn one page to get to the next, but aside from those stage directions there’s a lot of variation in how to read.

There are also, in that paragraph quoted above, a lot of adverbs. Nineteen, to be exact.

Doesn’t Okri know William Zinsser, author of the influential On Writing Well, has declared that “most adverbs are unnecessary”? Or that William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, authors of Elements of Style, have written, “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” Or that Callum Sharp, at “The Writing Cooperative” website, goes so far as to say that adverbs are the “death of good fiction writing,” giving examples such as “She quickly ran up the hill”?

At their frequent worst, adverbs state the obvious, especially in dialogue tags (“How dare you!” he said angrily), or prevent a writer from finding a better verb. Sharp’s example could be improved in this way: “She dashed up the hill.”

However, “How dare you!” he said coyly, is an entirely different sentence. Now anger has been transformed into flirtation.

Adverbs express their secret muscles when they contradict (coyly) what the reader expects, or sharpens a reader’s understanding. To get back to Ben Okri, to read “selectively” as a politician tells us much about that politician, and about politicians in general: always reading for partisan advantage. Peasants read “carefully” because they are not used to reading, and so need to slow down, or they read carefully because, from experience, they expect to be cheated and are looking for the trap. And so on. The nineteen adverbs in Okri’s paragraph delight instead of annoy, because they open up our understanding of the varied intentionalities of reading. He wields each one like a knife.

It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that a literary rule serves as a guide, not as a law.

Let’s take that thought and extend it to the stagecraft of reading. Why always travel from the first page to the grand finale?

The best books, I would suggest, are not overly concerned with what happens next, but instead lean curious about why it happens—the drama behind the mystery of someone’s behavior. That’s the reason one can read Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice more than once and with subsequent added pleasure, because the “what happens next” action of a book’s exterior world is illuminated by the “why” of the characters’ interior states.

Okri’s Don Ki-Otah takes this more than a few steps further, when he says,

“I have read books backward and inside out. I began reading Ovid in the middle and then to the end and then from the beginning. I once read every other sentence of a book I knew well and then went back and read the sentences I missed out. We are all children in the art of reading. We assume there is only one way to read a book. But a book read in a new way becomes a new book.”

As readers, like Don Ki-Otah we can manipulate the texts of our favorite books if we wish, but there are some books that kindly do this for us, that undermine the A+B+C-ness of linear narrative development.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at first seems like a collection of five stories that each ends in the middle of its narrative, sometimes in mid-sentence, yet always moving forward in historical time until the sixth, placed in the middle of the book, which is a complete narrative. Then, the next chapter is the second half of the fifth story, followed by the second half of the fourth story, and so forth, the connections becoming clearer and clearer, until the book—now obviously a novel of cleverly designed chapters, not a collection of stories—completes itself with the second half of the very first chapter back at the novel’s chronological beginning, last seen some 400 pages ago.

Initially, Cloud Atlas asks a reader to take the novel’s structure on faith, asks for patience with the shifts of time, place, and even literary style, as it slowly forms an elegant, unified arch-like design:

A-B-C-D-E—F—E-D-C-B-A

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse plays with time as well, though through deft chronological leaps. The first of the three sections of the novel occurs on a single day of the Ramsay family’s summer gathering; the second (and shortest) section takes place over the passage of ten years in the Ramsay’s now deserted vacation house; and the third takes place at the end of those ten years: finally the promised outing to a nearby lighthouse, though the family is now diminished.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World similarly plays with readers’ expectations of how a novel might proceed. Murakami’s novel alternates between chapters titled “Hard Boiled Wonderland,” and those titled “The End of the World.” At first a reader would be justified in thinking that this book is simply two different novels placed side by side, the point being some as yet undetermined contrast. Its design would look like this:

A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A, etc . . .

However, it’s not the contrasts but the slowly revealed similarities, the uncanny touch points that reveal the narrative is, in fact, a divided narrative that continually seeks to become whole.

Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch cuts right to the chase: it offers two Tables of Contents, first one that follows standard forward motion, Chapters 1 through 56, while a second invites “expendable” chapters to be interpolated into the text, adding extra force to the main character’s ambitions of creating a dissociative personality.

Finally, Georges Perec’s novel, Life: A User’s Manual, tells the stories of the people who live in a Paris apartment house, and its “Table of Contents” is actually the floor plan of that building. As you might imagine, the individual stories of the various apartments begin to intersect in unusual and surprising ways.

Sometimes I read three or more books at a time, alternating between them, and when I return to a book after reading a bit in a few others, I often find that my appreciation has been sharpened, that the world building of one book can cast shadow or light on the book I’ve returned to. Or sometimes I’ll pause in the reading of a novel, letting its current effect on me rest, and simply go about my other business for a day or two. Yet all the while I’ll think about that book I’ve temporarily left off, savoring its past chapters, absorbing them at my own pace, while its future pages await my inevitable return.

Because books, like literary rules, are guides but not laws about how to be read.

So I return to Ben Okri’s marvelous creation Don Ki-Otah, who says,

“Part of the trouble with our world is that the art of reading is almost dead. Reading is the secret of life. We read the world poorly, because we read poorly. Everything is reading. The world is the way you read it. As we read, so we are.”

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