Learning to Read Again

I think I count as a reader but sometimes it is difficult to tell. One frustration is that I spend a lot of time reading non-fiction now, but I read fiction when I was younger and first fell in love with reading. One complication is that non-fiction is terribly interesting while also being easier to associate with getting things done and so it gets an unfair advantage when choosing a book. This sounded like a recipe for never reading fiction again, and so I set out to at least read some short stories. It wasn’t entirely a conscious choice, as I’d already enjoyed “BLIT” by David Langford after hearing it recommended on a podcast (this led me to picking up Different Kinds of Darkness so I could read the other basilisk stories “What Happened at Cambridge IV”, “comp.basilisk FAQ” and “Different Kinds of Darkness” but have been delighted by others. “Accretion” comes to mind), and the cryptocurrency frenzy made me finally get around to reading Neal Stephenson’s “The Great Simoleon Caper”, but in the humiliating multi-volume anthology, Things I Should Have Read By Now, short stories are particularly well represented. Whether by luck or because short stories were on my mind, I happened on an article about the popularity of a substack from the author George Saunders that mentioned he was very good at short stories and had a book called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, so I joined the queue of 60 other library patrons who wanted to read the book and waited my turn.

I’d have had a better idea of what I was getting into if I was aware of the subtitle “In which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life.” Saunders, it turns out, teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and the book is a version of that class, presenting seven Russian short stories (“The Singers” (Ivan Turgenev), “The Nose” (Nikolai Gogol), “Master and Man”, “Alyosha the Pot” (Leo Tolstoy), “In the Cart”, “The Darling”, and “Gooseberries” (Anton Chekov), this last being the source of the title which presumably every reader but me was able to detect before opening the cover) with essays accompanying them. One benefit of being an ignoramus is that everything is new, so the change of billing wasn’t particularly off-putting, and I tend to like reading writers on writing anyway. Maybe some non-fiction sugar might help the old Russian medicine go down.

The first story was “In the Cart” and I thought I didn’t like it very much. The section containing this story uses a different format than the remaining ones in that it presents a page of the Chekov story followed by commentary. I declined to follow the rules the first time and read the story through, then re-read the story with the accompanying essay. The book’s subtitle indicates Saunders holds these stories in high regard, and his introduction promises a lot, so why didn’t I care for such a well-regarded story by a master? It was sad. I am sympathetic to Maria Vasilyevna and this story just keeps being unkind to her, from spoiling her goods to offering only just enough happiness to snatch it away again. However, I’m possessed by the haunting fear that I’m missing the point of most of what I read, so I was determined to subject myself to Maria’s cart ride a second time, accompanied by uncle George and his MFA class.

There’s a type of English instruction that seems common around middle or high school where students are introduced to a number of classic works and the assignments essentially present them as cryptograms from which the proper meaning is to be extracted in order to get a good grade. This seems like an inevitability because classes need to teach something, require some kind of structure and expectation for the work that’s done, and at some point in our lives we’re going to encounter “Ozymandias” (Percy Shelley) and it would be nice to understand that the poem is not about the importance of proper estate planning. Still, this kind of engagement with literature can be a drag, especially when confronted with an instructor’s more ambitious interpretations. The cost is that it can lead to a perception that there is a correct type of reading that resembles the type of work that was done at Bletchley Park. There is, however, a benefit to this kind of thinking which I probably only got to appreciate when reading Saunders’ commentary for “In the Cart.”

I’m not a very good rulebreaker, so the second reading was foreordained simply because I did actually want to read what Saunders had to say, but the second reading was now imbued with the purpose of finding out what on earth I was missing. It turns out, for the most part, nothing. The subtleties Saunders pointed out were things that registered on the first reading, and none of them were the key to saying that it turns out Maria Vasilyevna is going to be just fine. The underappreciated side effect of the secret code kind of reading is that if you have actually registered what is going on, it can be reassuring to have some kind of authority saying ‘yes, I see that too!’ (Having come from a religious upbringing, I can also say it can be particularly helpful with a certain kind of subtext to hear a ‘don’t worry, the author is just as perverted as you.’) This is not a slight against Saunders’ commentary, because it also had insightful comments on the mechanics of stories and, more importantly for me, the experience of reading a story. It is this last part that allowed me to go from “I didn’t like it because it was sad” to “my condition for this story to be good was that it not be sad? Well isn’t that interesting…” with the accompanying dark night of the soul.

I am playing the clown a bit with regards to my reading habits. When I watch a film I tend to watch it closely enough to offer some thoughts on The Terminator that provoke some appreciative nods, and to have strong opinions about Whiplash. I am tremendously fond of Paradise Lost and have some very clear ideas about the characterization of Satan. I liked my English courses enough to fill out the missing volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature that weren’t assigned. But I do worry that my ability to read and engage with literature has atrophied, and so getting some reassurance from a respected author saying ‘yeah, that’s in there, isn’t it cool?’ can provide just enough confidence to follow particular trains of thought, and adjust the antenna just enough to be aware of other signals I would have missed.

To me, these are the most valuable parts of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, aside from the stories themselves. I am also probably not the intended audience for the book, since my focus wasn’t really on creative writing instruction. I have no doubt that aspiring and practicing writers will benefit from the discussion of the mechanics reading, but, given that I am a remedial appreciator of good literature, it was far more beneficial as a way to reconnect with something I was worried I might have lost.

Having mostly recovered from the reflection on “In the Cart”, I found the lessons from the commentary helpful in the next story “The Singers”. More went over my head and the commentary enhanced my appreciation of the story, although my initial reaction wasn’t as strong as “In the Cart”. Paradoxically, this also became a source of concern. I don’t think a reader should have to read explanatory notes to enjoy a story, and I tend to appreciate certain details more when I have sense of ownership over them (not to the exclusion of other insights, but I have a natural advantage at persuading myself). These fears were short lived. The reaction to the commentaries were like any good class: some thoughts are obviously good ones you can’t believe you didn’t think of yourself, others seemed self-evident, others provoked a more skeptical response. I have to imagine the parts for which these labels apply will be different for each reader.

The wait to borrow A Swim in a Pond in the Rain likely would have been worth it to finally read the seven stories contained within. My favourite was “The Nose” because of its strangeness. What I appreciate the most about the book though was how it put me in mind of other conversations about stories I’ve had and past expressions of taste. After reading “The Nose” I recalled a conversation I had with a friend about Philip K. Dick. The friend felt Dick wasn’t a particularly good writer, but was good at high concepts, and people tended to think about the film adaptations when thinking about his work (though I’d amend this to say that they only think of the good adaptations). Another friend was in agreement and I couldn’t really understand the position. I really liked The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly. I had a collection of short stories and immediately thought of “Prominent Author” which put a smile on my face. I’d originally thought this was a question of unfamiliarity, but it was, in fact, a difference of taste. I do seem to have a natural inclination for strange stories, and “The Nose” was a chance to reconnect with that. This is, of course, in addition to the merits of the story itself, and the Saunders’ commentary, which has nothing to do with my tastes. Conversely, I probably don’t appreciate “Gooseberries” as much as George Saunders does, but I certainly appreciate it more having been given the opportunity slow down and actually take the time with it.

What am I to make of all this? It seems trite to say that Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol are good writers and that it’s worth reading their best stories. Does Saunders’ exposition bring out the master class on writing, reading and life? I’m inclined to say yes to the first two, but might say the third gets a light treatment (though I’m certainly happy it is not a literary self-help book). The difficulty is that I went in for the reading, and just happened to get the other two as a bonus, and so feel less equipped to comment on these.

Yet I do think there is some value in writing about my experience in reconnecting with the kind of appreciation of these stories I was looking for. It may be that I’m inclined to look for it, but it does seem that there is a group of people who would like to read more and somehow need instruction of permission to do so. Vox has published two articles on reading more, adding to a steady drumbeat of “how to read more” articles and reading challenges. I tend not to like articles on reading more because I think the solution boils down to realizing that we make time for the things we value and to then pick up something you’re interested in and get reading. However, the existence of these articles does communicate that there seems to be a desire to read that isn’t being fulfilled, and that a similar experience to my own reconnecting with a particular kind of reading may prove the decisive factor between dropping the reading habit a few days in and rekindling an old love. It is clear that the ability of “In the Cart” to provoke a strong reaction was a testament to the quality of the story, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time. The strength of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is that it was able to redirect that feeling inward and use it to power my engagement with the remaining six stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s