On Reading

This quote by Zadie Smith was excerpted at Boing Boing.

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

It’s a lovely reminder that reading is a skill, and one to be practiced over a lifetime. I frequently heard a dismissive “I didn’t like it” when I taught college composition and asked my students to read an essay. This often meant “I didn’t understand it.” But I’ve heard the same phrase and the same dismissal in disappointing book discussions, when the other readers don’t engage with the text. I heard Cold Mountain called too long, and The God of Small Things too depressing.

When I don’t like a book, I often engage MORE with the text, not less. (See this at Chicklit for an example.) I struggle to ascertain what it is that disappointed me. As I’ve grown as a reader, my criticism has become more complex, just as my interaction with the text has.

I can’t help the uncharitable part of me, though, that wonders if I’m reading too much into the quote. I think it implies Smith thinks she is an artist of great skill who can’t be comprehended entirely by readers. But I’ll squash the part of me that thinks so, and just appreciate her insight into reading.

Comments are closed.