This is a piece that I wrote almost a year ago now while living in Le Mans, France as an English teacher. I edited it many times, and feel that it’s rather polished for what it is, and so I’m putting it up here by reason of not letting it rot in the Documents folder of my computer.
I have since written many things on the topic of “reading,” and find this particular piece to be a little too general; however I do not find that a good enough reason to throw the thing out, or to not share it with others. This is, indeed, something that I’ve written and edited. It would seem wrong to put it away, as to do so would make anything I am making or might possibly make equally as inconsequential and destroyable. I wrote it, as I have been writing most of my essays recently, as if I was sharing ideas with a friend, perhaps a fellow reader or writer, and not for the inclusion in any kind of anthology or greater work.
Please feel free to comment on it here, or email me at email@example.com, in order to give it some life in discussion.
On Reading and the Creative Activity
To say that “reading is good” sounds to most of us, in 2016, like a maxim repeated to the point of losing any of its denotative sense, instead connoting only a self-imposed wisdom and worldliness. Indeed, most people seem eager to acknowledge that reading is good, whether they do it themselves or not, and that the question is only how to actually find the time to read. But I am a reader, and have always in a silent, unacknowledged way agreed with the most clichéd of such maxims. In my journal I would write, without a trace of sarcasm or irony, such statements—that reading is good; that it can be one of the best uses of my time; that it is a moment of expression, of creation, important as writing itself or any other artistic activity.
But recently in that course of thought, there came the point when that definite statement could no longer withstand the weight. It seemed that after devoting such time and effort to reading, it was inevitable that the question would finally lead to others: Why do I find reading so “good”? Or rather, Why do I find this apparently obvious thought to be so profound?
And I proceeded to write, as to express this thought, but also as to follow where it might lead. The thought was raw, unexplained, and even unfinished—I wrote not to find “what I meant” because in that moment of writing in the journal I truly had no more refined or intended meaning. Reading was good; the thought didn’t go much farther than that. I stood at the edge of an unknown space staring out. I proceeded to write, forcing the thought forward, to create what I meant and not to find it—to express in words a limited but hopefully helpful explanation of why reading may be “good,” and what it can do for those who try it.
What I found in my reading, what I continue to find, is that it results in the very same kind of act as in my writing: an act of creation. It seems unusual to think of reading as creation, as creation is usually conferred exclusively to the artist. And therein lies my base, my grounding: that all activity is in some way creation, of ideas, perceptions, and consequently other acts—even if not a single one of us actors acknowledges the fact. Making the decision to read—not just “reading” verbatim, but thinking over the activity beforehand, taking up the written material, finding a place to read, and any other action in which we are not directly interpreting words—is what some call an “expressive” act but which I prefer to think of most importantly as a “creative” one, one that creates.
And while I believe it is essential to discuss the creative power of all daily activities, I first and foremost address reading because of the innumerable opportunities for creation provided to any and all readers, of all ages and classes and places with access to reading material; and second because I am a reader, and through the course have had many thoughts on reading. This is not my final explanation or declaration of what makes reading good, but moreso an expressive example—a model, even—of how an activity can be sounded by activity itself: here, that of me writing, and you reading.
I start with time. This is because—again, through the course—I’ve come to many conclusions that relate reading and time, and not because I mean to draw any fundamental relation between the two things themselves.
Indeed the most common challenge of reading I hear expressed is that of finding the time to read; which makes this the most suitable place to begin talking about the everyday creations of reading. When my friends and I left university, we faced the harsh challenge of managing our own reading (and writing) lives. School is one reliable life-structure: by establishing students and teachers in an environment where studying, teaching and learning can lead to livelihood (social and intellectual interaction and even food, shelter, and money) it therefore stimulates those activities. If a reader doesn’t anticipate and prepare for the removal of that structure, the challenge of building a new one often appears before them all too suddenly. Thus I watched and continue to watch many of my friends (even and especially those who studied literature and writing) suffer as they try to keep reading relevant to their lives. And anyone who possesses the valuable ability to read faces this challenge in some way, whether they decided long ago not to read on a daily basis or if they continue to make the simple effort of reading a chapter of whatever popular novel before bed.
Commonly referred to as “making time” for reading, it is fundamental to its activity. We must view reading with this relation to time, as being in sync with all other activities that come before and after, if we want to begin to see it’s real place in life and not merely as a thing disembodied from life. Such a phrase, making time, carries an incredibly clear meaning that usually goes unnoticed: for in reading, we make for ourselves a perception of time. Often we use the expression “to make time” as to push one activity backward and another forward in order to create an open period—implying Time as pre-made and a thing we can only learn to use more efficiently. But as there is no one but ourselves to legitimize any certain perception of time, it ends up falling to our own activity to define and explain it. Through our activity, we all define and explain time in the ways that currently seem sensible to us. This means that by doing anything, such as reading or cooking or having a conversation, we ourselves create a perception of time, whether it be a copy of one we’ve gleaned (from something like a clock) or an attempt at an entirely new creation.
Even among the most aware of individuals, this process of creation happens mostly unnoticed. However, if we from time to time remind ourselves of the creation inherent in all activity, and if we let that fact influence our decision-making, we will be more willing and able to move forward and create fresh perceptions, artistic objects, and social structures that work better according to our own age and personal lives—instead of accepting Time pre-made, time as it has been, and feeling bound to its confines.
Reading appears as one way of reminding ourselves of that constant, everyday creation. Writing (here meaning anything readable) tends to completely detach itself from conceptions of time—or at least from the standard timeline-conception so many of us continue to re-create and justify—and therefore we as readers tend to go through a lot of work to make and impose our conceptions of time. If we look at the very base of reading, however, we may see how it exists before we alter it with all of our unconscious making and creating.
I cannot list all of the reasons as to why a written piece defies this habitual conception of time, because I surely do not know the half of them; but what I do know may be the groundwork.
First: the very idea of a written thing, which one person writes and another reads, defies the timeline-conception because the act of reading (which is involved with other acts such as writing, editing) comes with no time limit, intended or enforced. It’s not a film and it’s not a performance, both of which (at least in a basic understanding) construct a period of time in which they take place without effect from the audience. In the act of reading, any and all conception of time must be created by the reader. This indicates quite naturally that deciding on a moment to read, how long to read, and how slowly or quickly to read falls completely into the power and obligation of the readers, and their decisions then become their creations.
While I believe some would impose time on reading if they could, it safely turns out to be a difficult thing to do; no matter how juvenile or immature, the timelessness of a written thing often shines through. It continues, even regarding the general public and mass-market, to be in most ways an activity which forces a creative act from its participants in order to make any kind of sense. Readers of any kind of book, whether it’s called “literature” or not, must perform a fair amount of comprehension and imagination to soundly understand it. While the process of being forced to “make” for ourselves can be horribly difficult, it is that process which leads us to a more conscious, pointed, and intended distribution of aspects of life such as time, if not more independent and self-sufficient conceptions altogether.
Too often we hear the word “timeless” attributed to great literature as a ground for its defense; but what I think is really meant by the term is that those pieces of writing do not assume a conception of time—they in fact leave the decision of whether or not time is necessary for creation completely up to the reader. Rather than addressing time, they in fact ignore it to the furthest extent.
The intention of all this, first and foremost, is to assert that when we read we do, we make, we create. I believe this for all activity; but it just so happens that I find reading to be one place where they happen the most. In reading, things are raw and unmade—things, because I have no way of identifying them in theory, because the creation of reading is what gives them new words. Time is such a lovely example here because every reader must involve themselves in its creation, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Yet in a regular activity of reading, one discovers texts that influence the creation of every aspect of our lives: conceptions of place, identity, gender, race, on and on—literally anything. Writings lacking in ambition to create, create nonetheless; they rather assume and re-create conceptions of life that they’ve perceived and attempted absently to portray in words. I look back on my earlier work and see all the aspects of it that does not create ambitiously, that rather only re-creates by assuming certain standards or truths of those things such as place, identity, gender, race, etc. What I call a “good” read is one that stimulates me to create as much as possible—to create from the ground up.
I open Moby Dick in my local laundromat and begin to read alongside a neighbor, also reading. Not only am I pushed by the act of comprehending each word, paragraph, and sentence to imagine the wily character of Queequeg and the loving bond between he and narrator Ishmael, but the absolute seriousness and responsibility the author takes with the activity of writing encourages the creation and continual re-creation of everything from beginning to end, from Adam and Eve to the settlement of the Americas. I’m still in a laundromat, still besides my neighbor who reads one of the culture magazines left out on the table, and yet I’m not making a single decision or thought about my university job or my apartment rent because right now is Nantucket, is the sea, is whaling. When we give reading a chance to be monumental, we find often enough that it lives up to the challenge.
I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it.1
No canon or category of “good reading” or “literature” exists until we go and make one, and in most such cases we’re only re-making what’s already been, the kind of act I call out against; therefore I encourage no definition of what to read. Of course I decide constantly which kinds of materials I want to read and which kinds I don’t; but it is up to each and every individual to make those decisions themselves, and create a definition. One should only read what one wants to read; but it happens that when a reader is aware of the creation that in fact happens in activity, they will naturally not want to read those books whose plots and descriptions bore the senses to death, those books that allow the narrowest room for the creative act. A creator who wants to actually create will as a result provide their audience with the tools for a creative experience. Through the course of regular activity a reader eventually locates this kind of author and learns to push aside others that don’t do the job—greats, unknowns, up-and-comers all alike—assembling as a result a personal canon that has no bounds but those used to establish itself.
Let us treat reading not as something we do only because there rests minutes in the day but as the spectacular effort of creation that it is, has been, and always will be. In this way we can learn to view all activity—that it is to say, everything that we do to survive, from finding food to finding entertainment. Perhaps we would spend less effort spending time on smartphones and laptops out of boredom, and therefore less effort lamenting our inactivity, if only we treated the decisions of our activity as being what in fact makes our lives and as what our lives in turn make. Let us start at reading, as a basic step, because it can teach us, at our own pace and on our own time, how the fruits of a certain activity can enrich and give meaning to the activity itself.
1 Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden; or, Life in the Woods.