On Reading

Imaging New Reading and Thinking Habits, a Few Ideas

(Or, How to Read, a strategy for people trying to stop skimming over ideas and start engaging with them)

  • Avoid reading the entire book, from cover to cover. Instead, pick a chapter or essay for focusing your thinking.
  • Read through once without taking notes, preferably in a comfortable chair.
  • Ask yourself: what troubles me, moves me, angers me, frustrates me about this reading? Why?
  • Underline those passages that bother or move you. Talk back to the text by writing your questions in the margins.
  • Pick one passage or idea that especially moves you (in anger, joy, confusion).
  • This could be a word, a sentence, a passage, a main theme. Spend a lot of time thinking about it. Ruminate.
  • Write about it. I like to write about it in a blog post. I find that the public nature of a blog encourages me to organize my thought more effectively and coherently. And, the less formal nature of the blog encourages me to work through and process my ideas. There’s an added bonus: it’s easier to access those thoughts later. I have to admit that my handwriting is so bad that sometimes I can’t read thoughts that I’ve written just minutes before.
  • Start by writing out what the author is claiming. Before troubling these claims, take them seriously by summarizing them. This summary should not include your judgment/assessment of the reading.
  • Connect your summary of your chosen passage or idea with the main argument of the text. I often do this by explaining the title of the reading.
  • Now write your reactions. Again, these are not judgments, but reactions.
  • Avoid overly objective, removed descriptions. Instead, use lots of “I” statements and spend considerable time thinking about how these ideas make you feel and why you are having resistance to them.
  • In your reactions, always draw upon specific examples from the text to support and contextualize your feelings and claims.
  • In your reactions, do not rush to judge (or convict, condemn) the reading or the author’s claims. Be generous and patient.
  • Develop some tentative conclusions, but keep working at it periodically until you can figure out why you are troubled or moved by the essay. This might take a long time; I’ve spent 16 years trying to figure out why one passage from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble moves me.
Why Read? Some reasons, other than acquiring facts and becoming a Success.
  • To Enter New Worlds
  • To Dream
  • To Recognize that Other Ways of Being are Possible (and already exist)
  • To Exercise Curiosity
  • To be Recognized
  • To Resist
  • To Escape
  • To Increase Understanding
  • Adventure!
  • To Retreat and Be Restored
  • To Witness Humanity
  • To Listen and Learn
  • To Be Challenged
  • To Light a Fire
  • To Encounter Mystery
  • To Solve a Mystery
  • To Relax
  • To Join in Ongoing Conversations
  • To Feel, To Laugh, To Cry
How to Read with Cone Dystrophy
  • Very slowly. It took almost 6 months to read Love in the Time of Cholera.
  • Take naps between words.
  • Stop looking, start listening to more audio books and podcasts. Learn how to study ideas with your ears instead of your eyes.
  • Choose wisely. Your brain can only handle so much. When it’s done, it’s done. Don’t waste it on a crappy book or terrible twitter threads.
  • Avoid densely packed prose, including the hundreds of scholarly books on your shelves from your academic career. Pick poetry instead, which is often dense but leaves space to breathe and offers an opening and a reprieve for overworked eyes.
  • Also avoid large print. You need print that can fit inside the small spot of central vision that remains.
  • Mostly read on a tablet. Reserve physical books for when it’s warm and sunny so you can sit outside and read in the sunlight.
  • Purchase a low vision light and always have it on the brightest setting.
On Mary Ruefle’s Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World

from a RUN! log entry on may 2, 2023

At the start of reading this lecture, I’d like to note my current relationship to reading and my deep belief in books: Reading with my diseased eyes is still possible, but difficult. And difficult to explain. It’s not that the words are so fuzzy or faint to be illegible. Mostly I can make them out, but the page and the words seem to be in constant motion, vibrating. Not quickly, but constantly. Or, is it my brain that’s vibrating? I can’t tell. What I can say with some certainty is that my experience of struggling to read with faltering eyes does not involve a harsh voice in my head sternly saying, I can’t read!, or a panicked voice muttering, i can’t read?, which is what I thought would happen if I were to lose my sight when I imagined such a horror as a kid playing a game of would you rather lose your vision or your hearing? Or maybe I thought I’d cry out, Pa! I can’t see!

No, struggling to read involves a lot of distractions and falling asleep mid-sentence and struggling to finish 400 page books within the 3 week check-out period from the local library. Unintentionally skipping entire lines, wanting to get lost in a good book but somehow managing to do anything and everything else instead — dishes, laundry, scrolling through instagram. Even as I wish I could read as much and as fast as I used to, I am grateful to have the small comfort of gradually easing into the loss, not having one single terrifying moment of recognition. Thank you, brain. 

I am in year 4 of the 5 that my eye doctor predicted I had before losing all of my central vision. A few cone cells right in the center of my central vision are holding on, diligently delivering data so that I can read Ruefle’s lecture or this entry. But, how well can I actually read this entry? Even as I try to proofread, I often leave out words or spell them wrong. When those cone cells die — is it certain that they will die? — will I finally have that moment of terrible recognition? Will it be like Ruefle describes when she woke up one morning and couldn’t read:

When I was forty-five years old, I woke up on an ordinary day, neither sunny or overcast, in the middle of the year, and I could no longer read….the words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I and loved and lived in but would never see again. 

(She concludes: “I needed reading glasses, but before I knew that, I was far far away.” In the margins of the book I wrote: drama bomb, which we — me, Scott, RJP, and FWA have been saying a lot lately.) I can’t know for sure, but I doubt that even if I do wake up tomorrow without being able to read the words on a page that this type of terror will seize me. Maybe one reason is that when I can’t read with my eyes, I can still read with my ears. I’ve spent the last 4 years building up my reading-as-listening skills. And there are so many amazing audio books available!

This is not to say that losing my ability to stare endlessly at words and understand them is not painful. It’s strange to walk by the bookshelves crammed full of all my wonderful books from grad school, filled with notes in the margins, and know they’re useless to me. Or to go to a bookstore, which used to be one of my favorite things to do, and hate — or maybe just strongly dislike — being there, unable to read the title of books unless I pick them up and slowly study them. It’s painful, but not tragic or a tragedy.

On Reading with Ears, Writing without Eyes

from a log entry on RUN! — 9 sept 2023

In my recent round of requesting books using the Libby app, I’ve been choosing mostly audio books. Reading with my eyes is getting harder. It really doesn’t bother me that much because audio books are amazing. So many choices, with highly skilled narrators. 

Gradually over the last several years, I’ve been building up my listening skills, learning to read with my ears instead of eyes — but only through audio books and podcasts. Reading for fun. I have spent very little time learning how to read with my ears in practical situations. I’m not using a screen reader. I don’t listen to my text messages. When I’m writing on this blog, I only use my eyes to proofread what I’ve written. This eyes-only approach has led to an increasing number of typos

Every so often I worry about how I’ll use this blog, which has so many words, when I can’t read what I’ve written. Over the years, I have experimented a little with dictation — dictating my log entries into my phone — but these experiments have been limited and don’t usually last that long. I think it might be time to step up my efforts, to experiment more, to start developing new habits that can ease me into life without central vision, both practically and creatively, helping me to navigate the world better and to create art that better reflects/communicates how I see and don’t see. 

I’d like to return to this book excerpt from Andrew Leland and The Country of the Blind soon, taking up some of what he discusses about Borges, dictation, and writing with screen writers. 

A few things I have been thinking about which translate practically, but are about my art, one is about seeing in new ways, the other about not relying on sight. 

seeing while writing in new ways: Instead of keeping my writing style the same but accessing it with new technology, like a screen reader, I’m changing my writing style: shifting to the sparseness and blank spaces of poetry, dramatically reducing my word count, experimenting with how many words I can take out and still convey/create meaning.

On libraries, unfamiliar places, and my vision struggles

from a log entry on RUN! — 14 sept 2023

Picked up my first physical (non ebook) at the library yesterday. Last time I’ve been inside the library was sometime in early 2020, before the pandemic, and before the library suffered heavy fire damage during the George Floyd uprising, when white supremacists tried to burn it down. 

There are lots of reasons I haven’t made it back to the library since then — I mostly read ebooks which you check out online because the light from the screen is always bright enough for me, while I often have to read physical books outside in direct sun to see the words. During and after the pandemic, I’ve been less willing to go into public spaces. I can’t drive anymore and the library is too close for a bus, but too far for an easy/quick walk. 

Maybe the biggest reason: I’ve been scared. Walking into a building, I can’t read the signs that tell me where to go or notify me of something, like a new policy. What if I can’t find where to go? What if they’ve changed how to pick up holds, where to check them out? Of course, I could ask and I have been willing to do so, but it’s hard. Even if I ask, first I have to endure that moment of unknowing and confusion, when I enter a building and can’t see people’s faces, read signs, orient myself quickly.* This is Emily Dickinson’s moment in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” — A Moment — We uncertain step/For newness of the night –. Also, even though I’ve been working on it, it’s still hard to ask for help — to take the time, to bother someone, to not know how to do something. I’m hoping asking will get easier and I’ll care less and less about having to do it. For now, I have a different solution: Scott (or my kids or a friend) can come with me to a new place the first time, to help with any confusion I might have. Once I know how it works, I can come back on my own. 

* To add to this: it’s not just that I’m uncertain, confused. Sometimes, my brain makes very bad guesses — often the exact opposite of what is actually there/happening — and I overconfidently act on them. The more wrong I am, the more likely I am to boldly act. This is embarrassing — I look stupid or sound crazy/ridiculous, but it is also dangerous. Scott has witnessed this enough times to verify my assessment. I believe this is related to my failing vision, but I don’t know how. So strange and frustrating because I don’t seem to have any control over it, and I like to have control.

Lorine Niedecker and Nystagmism

how might the notion of subjecting a poetics to an author’s disability be altered by our questioning of the assumptions of the always already embodied act of reading itself? . . .

Niedecker underwent a major transition in visual ability in 1949 when she was diagnosed with the visual condition of ‘nystagmus,’ a condition that affects one’s ability to control the movement of one’s eyes (Peters 100). . . .

Such an engagement with Niedecker’s nystagmic gaze might enable us to try on a new way of reading her work and provide a critical site from which to reread the objectivist legacy. With its upward ticks and regressive eye-movements, the nystagmic eye invites a reading of Niedecker’s poetry that deforms the agency and intentionality of what we might assume to be the ‘normal’ path of the eye in reading. This unique gaze invites us to read upwards and downwards and across and around in circles, to isolate particular word forms and to pay attention to the positionality of language in the eye. To deform the text in this way is not only to defamiliarize the culturally mediated process of reading, but to also cast the legacy of modernist poetry in a different light.

Nystagmic Poetics in Lorine Niedecker’s Postwar Poetry/ Edward Ferrari

After almost twenty years of being functionallyblind, Niedecker seems to have integrated her vision into her life, but also into a refiguring of late modernist poetics, one that eschewed a stable, totalized ‘image’ and instead theorized her so-called ‘reflective’ poetics.

Nystagmic Poetics in Lorine Niedecker’s Postwar Poetry/ Edward Ferrari