Critical Reading: Ever Wish You Could Stop?

Remember the delicious thrill of students, right before the start of the school hols.? Months of blissful nothing lying ahead; and while for others this meant Cartoon Network and video games (or, for many of us poor Singaporean kids, more tuition), for me it was the delightful prospect of weeks spent lounging about like a fat cat on the sofa with my whiskers getting all tangled up in books. Whenever school hols started Dad would drive us all to the library, from which we’d troop back hours later, dragging a huge bag of books between us. Had to be a canvas bag, because plastic always broke; what with sixteen books each for me and my sister, and sometimes more (we’d purloined our grandparents’ cards too so we could borrow extra books). So much time then, and so much to read! I’d plunge into the books with a child’s abandon, yielding completely to the magic of the moment.

Then came Literature. The academic discipline. And with it came timelines and deadlines. Texts had to be dissected, some forced down our throats (Herland, for example, was a piece of total propaganda that bored me to tears). Teachers would drone on, and the notes and homework they flooded us with together with their general lack of help and enthusiasm often desiccated great works in the process, which I would only later learn to enjoy. Critical reading, they called it. With the encounter of better teachers, I learnt, gradually, to not only do it but also love it for its fruits. In uni, however, this had to be done fast.

My (rarely achieved) goal was about four books a week, some of them as thick and tedious as Tristram Shandy. In addition to my curriculum texts, I was determined to keep up with my proliferating shelf of recreational reading books. But my overloaded schedule meant that every second of free time had to count. Social life was the first thing to go. Next went sleep; I had to seize not just the day but also the night. If Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, another shot for me wouldn’t hurt …

But something else left me, too. The innocent pleasure of absorption that I’d had as a child, the joyous thirst for story with its anticipation of fulfilment–all that had disappeared, though in my hectic life I was barely conscious of it. I plodded on. There was no time to be enchanted, no time to enjoy the show; I had to head straight backstage to study the pulleys and levers, the props and the puppet strings. Attempts at succumbing to the author’s spell met with varying degrees of failure, as every moment in the journey was shadowed by the next essay or review waiting to be hammered out. Books were rifled through rather than savoured; like many other moderately diligent students I skimmed over whole forests, swooping in occasionally with the all-too-easy command+F to reap it for technicalities, messages, cultural resonances. Secondary sources became unhealthy acquaintances; the noise of my search helicopter drowned out the whisper of the leaves.

Hammered by the driving curse of carpe diem I Googled speed-reading courses, trying to turn my brain into some kind of super-sponge, wishing I could download whole libraries into it like learning kungfu in The Matrix. I was greedy; I wanted it all. Books piled up, in my Kindle and in my shelves, read once and slotted in neatly again–I’ll come back, I promised them, next month, or the month after–but there were always more new fields to plough. When I could mark another book as ‘Read’ I’d feel a trivial, and perhaps rather perverse, sense of satisfaction.

I had, of course, other reasons to read: for wisdom and insight, for admiration of an author’s skill, for pleasure in a language exquisitely wrought. Nevertheless I could never read again with the same absorption I’d had as a child, when disbelief was not so much willingly as automatically suspended because the possibility of not doing so simply never occured to me.

This is what J. Harris Miller calls the ‘aporia of reading‘. As a child I read speedily, and even took pride at how fast I read, flying through plot after plot without thought for the author’s craft; as an adult I still read quickly, (well at least I try to, though careful reading always slows things down), mining texts for both craft and content, but no longer dragged hook, line and sinker into the author’s painted world. Miller insists, despite their apparent contradiction, that we must perform both ways of reading simultaneously.

Is this even possible? Perhaps some of you have no problem with this, but it seems to me that every time I think about the author’s technique I am jerked out of the story. It’s with a different sense of enjoyment that I read now, and although some may say the development of the critical faculty is always good, I can’t help but miss the times when I could just drift off on the words of a book, and remain carried by its currents of dream without looking down to see how the propellers work.

Lately, though, I’m finding more and more that slow reading brings me close to a resolution of sorts. Reading slowly, I can luxuriate in the intricacy of the crafted spell, and even let it seduce me a little, because the time taken to savour it allows me also to willingly or actively yield myself to its power. Good reading, Miller says, demands slow reading. He’s referring specifically to critical reading here, the necessity of being ‘suspicious at every turn’; but I think that this isn’t wholly incompatible with the first, unsuspicious way of reading. We may compare this with slow food: eating slowly when we’re hungry would prolong hunger and perhaps delay gratification, but ultimately we get to satiate our appetites and enjoy the finer details of taste, texture and culture that gobbling would leave out. In the same way, slow reading may interfere with the pace of, say, a climactic scene in an Agatha Christie novel, but may enable us to gain the two key, distinct experiences of a text–absorption into a world and enjoyment of the author’s craft–just a split second short of simultaneity.

Still, it’s an imperfect solution to the reading aporia. Perhaps every book should be read at least twice–once for the credulous reading, and once again for the critical one. What do you think?

Against Grammar Nazism

(A modified version of this article was first published on Book Riot under the title “Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules“.)

We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives; the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar Nazi’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for ‘bad writing’.

I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Stylemongers’. Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so enthusiastically slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change ‘guys’ to ‘boys’ regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.

I don’t blame the teachers. They have to play by the rules laid down by the Ministry. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school. Recently, a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be shown to school students, and the school teachers who made the edits corrected words like ‘thanks’ to ‘thank you’, complaining that the former was too informal; and, of course, throwing believable dialogue out of the window. This is an extreme case of linguistic Nazism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing but paying scarcely any attention to the book’s contents; critics or Goodreads reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing FictionThe Golden Rules For A Good PlotTop 5 Grammar Rules Not To Break; guided, of course, by articles like 5 Data Insights Into Headlines Readers Click. Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be–God forbid!–ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.

We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is no doubt a good practical skill, as is the knowledge of effective story structures. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. Writers and readers alike should see them as tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity; perhaps to be followed temporarily by students for training purposes, but able to be artfully used, manipulated or broken after they’ve been mastered. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, let us consider them with open minds instead of shredding his manuscript at once.

It’s part of the job of Language Arts educators to mark the works of young writers. This means evaluation. Which means, like it or not, they contribute almost as much as critics do in setting the course of literary taste and standard for next generation. The way young writers are graded would influence their judgment of other works. If what we are teaching is a greater concern for arbitrary rules than with the sound and signification, the poetic style and usage, of language, then one generation of grammar Nazis would breed another; and soon we may find ourselves suffocating in a dreadfully dull, colourless literary landscape, with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.