The Fine Art of Reading
The other day I was trying to explain to a class that there are many ways of reading a book. Every single one of these mature and sophisticated adults looked across at me, a bit blankly. Each and every one reads a book from beginning to end, one word at a time. That day I arrived home and found some new review books. I added them to one that I was already thinking about and resolved to illustrate just a very few ways that books can be read and enjoyed. Only some of them involved starting at the beginning and reading through to the end.
First, let me introduce the books.
The first one is the one that I was already partway through when the new books arrived. It's by Sue Bradbury and is called Joanna, George and Henry. A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship. As the title suggests, it’s biographical, throwing light on three of the somewhat less known Pre-Raphaelite painters. It describes their lives, their relationships and their careers through a combination of the art (especially that of Joanna Boyce) and the letters they sent each other. It’s an enjoyable study of people and their lives and gives some interesting insights on the difficulties a woman faced as a professional painter in the nineteenth century.
The second book is another on quantum physics. I am determined to understand quantum physics, even though I left the study of science behind when I was fifteen. This is why, every now and again, I review a volume. This volume is equal to Quantum Physics for Poets (and I showed it to my class and they wanted to spend another year writing poetry about physics, since the last book was so much fun) but quite different. It’s 101 Quantum Questions, and is a lucid explanation of quantum physics arranged by sub-topic (the earlier volume was arranged historically). It makes sense of things from an entirely different direction to Quantum Physics for Poets and I find myself in danger of understanding particular aspects well enough to venture explanations to the unwary.
The third is entirely different (which is the point of choosing it). It was first published in 1876 and was written by A Lounger at the Clubs. It’s an informed and quirky contemporary guide to manners and clothing for men, entitled The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing with Economy. If only the writers of steampunk would read it… I have read it, however, and love the complexity of the attitudes it shows and that dress is a difficult matter.
So, how shall we approach three fine but somewhat varied volumes?
When I encounter a new nonfiction book, the first thing I check is whether I'm going to enjoy it. I read a bit of it for style and voice and subject and coherence. I take a look at the table of contents and at appendices (if there are any) and at anything else the book might offer. Joanna, George and Henry, for instance, offers reproductions of many of the works of art mentioned. The table of contents and the index for 101 Quantum Questions alone would make it an excellent reference book. The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing with Economy is a facsimile of a book in the British Library's collection. Facsimiles give the sense of the original book: they’re like time capsules in look as well as in content. All these elements would push me towards these three books.
Then, of course (for I am an historian) I look at what the book says and the research methods of the writer and what sort of examples it gives. This is why, for instance, I called The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing with Economy ‘quirky’ for it is the writer’s personal interpretation of the world he knows and his opinions are strong. He uses a great deal of his city life as material, and then he talks about this material and interprets it for the betterment of the reader.
His method is so consistent that no matter where I open the book, I can find interesting examples. For instance, in his chapter on coats, he describes different coats. “The Surtout,” he says, “is a large edition of the ordinary frock coat, and is a very elegant and dressy garment.” He works his way through the strengths and weaknesses of that surtout, covering every element he can think of, including “The pockets are behind, and not so handy for reference to one’s handkerchief in cold weather; nor can you get your hands in them for warmth ‑ a practice I do not recommend, for it drags the coat out of shape ‑ yet, like many other things, unfortunately, thought, “naughty, it is nice.”
So, how else can I read this book? I can read it for the humour, both intentional and unintentional. I might read a chapter, or dip into it at random for bons mots. I could then seek the personality of the writer and find out more about this man who understands that comfort is more tempting than the line of a good coat on a cold day. Or I can examine it for the ethnographical history: it reveals so much about a certain aspect of London life in the 1870s: it’s richer than most textbooks and far more entertaining. Or perhaps I could read it with my novelist’s eye, scanning the content for the piece of telling detail I could use in my fiction. If I were comparing it with other works, I would look for the narrative underneath the narrative and examine it for the patterns it shares with other works but this would require reading it from beginning to end, which brings me back to where I started.
Joanna, George and Henry proposes rather different reading possibilities. It can, of course, be read as a straight biography of the three painters and their milieu. This is how it was intended.
Secondly, the memoir shows a great deal about the Pre-Raphaelites: how they were seen by their peers and how the movement grew and the sorts of training and background the artists had. There is a story behind the story, therefore, and one that is particularly interesting for Joanna.
The third reading is of Joanna herself. She died young and her life was full of the importance of others, but she still created a significant portfolio of art. She's an interesting mixture of the religious, the passionate, the devoted family member and the woman who knew that, when she married, her art might have to dwindle. She fought that dwindling.
The story behind Joanna’s story is also the story of the bombing of Bath, which destroyed much of Joanna’s legacy. All these readings are sequential: this is not the sort of book that can be dipped into and out of.
There are, therefore, many ways of reading Joanna, George and Henry, but they all move in the same direction: chronological and sequential. The story told by the art in the book can, however, be read in chronological order, style order, theme order or even through discovering the meanings of each picture, one at a time.
101 Quantum Questions offers quite different approaches still. I’ve already asked myself “What is spin?” and looked it up. It gave me a very understandable answer, too.
This book strings ideas together, so a non-science person like me can build up a picture at their own pace, through reading a few answers and seeing how they fit together, or looking up key terms and finding out how they fit with other terms. I fear that I almost understand why the periodic table is what it is, using Ford’s approach.
Ford’s approach, in fact supports this step-by-step understanding. Unlike many science writers, he doesn’t feel the need to involve the reader in every single element of the history of every single discovery. As a result, the focus is more on the science and a little less on its history. This opens the book up to someone who wants to seek solely the big theory, to one who has a question to answer (“What is spin?”) or to approach it using the more regular route.
All the options in 101 Quantum Questions, however, are educational and have the end result of teaching science. This may (however unlikely in this particular instance) not be the intent of the book (it might have many layers and deep rhetorical significance lying just out of my reach) and it might be the reader. I read the book in order to understand the universe and current interpretations of it, so all of the directions I choose to read the book from reflect that need.
This brings me, inevitably, to my last point: this column has been about the reader, not the books. Those three excellent volumes that happened to find their way into my mailbox are books I wanted to interact with. How we, as readers, understand books and read them and interpret them is entirely up to us.
I love it that I can choose between many different directions and approaches, but one of my students always starts at the beginning and reads every word until the end. The only wrong approach is not to engage, to let the book somehow remain unread or to read it so fleetingly that no engagement has taken place. This is the bottom line; readers engage with good books. There are so many good books and so many ways of engaging with them that I need to go, for another one awaits me.
Books mentioned in this column:
Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Ms Cellophane, Momentum, 2012 – shortlisted for a Ditmar award), an anthology (Baggage, Eneit Press, 2010 – also shortlisted for a Ditmar award), an historical cookbook (for Conflux, 2011), the occasional short story and a slew of articles. She won the Ditmar for Professional Achievement in 2010. One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers’ residence in the Blue Mountains, and grants from the ACT government. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney and is completing a second in creative writing at the University of Western Australia. She researches history, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains ‘etc’ as including paying attention to science fiction and trying to avoid emotional cruelty to ants. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.