A Weapon for Readers

Tim Parks in NYRBlog:

AnnotatedA pen is not a magic wand. The critical faculty is not conjured from nothing. But it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched…

Some readers will fear that the pen-in-hand approach denies us those wonderful moments when we fall under a writer’s spell, the moments when we succumb to a style, and are happy to succumb to it, when suddenly it seems to us that this approach to the world, be it Proust’s or Woolf’s or Beckett’s or Bernhard’s, is really, at least for the moment, the only approach we are interested in, moments that are no doubt among the most exciting in our reading experience.

No, I wouldn’t want to miss out on that. But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it. Let us resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into. For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Some¬times it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed. Wasn’t this what Cervantes was complaining about when he began Don Quixote? Better to read a poor book with alert resistance, than devour a good one in mindless adoration.

Read the rest here.

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