Still life with Book (detail, 1913) Juan Gris. Courtesy Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France
There’s more to words than meets the eye. Deepen your appreciation of literature through the art of slow, attentive reading
by Robert DiYanni
Still life with Book (detail, 1913) Juan Gris. Courtesy Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France
is a professor of humanities at New York University. His latest books are Critical Reading Across the Curriculum (2017), co-written with Anton Borst, and You Are What You Read: A Practical Guide to Reading Well (2021). He lives in Bedford, New York.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
Have you ever wondered how some people see so much in what they read – whether they’re reading novels or stories, poems or plays, essays or memoirs, or something entirely different? One of the pleasures of reading literature well is the satisfaction of being tuned in to what a literary work shows and suggests – and to how it does those things. You probably already enjoy the ways that literary works entertain you, instruct you, move you. Recognising and understanding how they accomplish these things will enable you to deepen your appreciation still further and gain even more reward.
From reading deeply, you gain experience as well as knowledge: you gain from reading literary works in all their unique particularity. You live other lives, undergo other ways of being in the world that, while differing from your own, speak, nonetheless, to your condition and that of the people around you. In the process of reading literature, we therefore enrich our understanding of other people and of the world – and of ourselves. We become, in some sense, what we read.
You might wonder how to increase your enjoyment of literary works, how you might amplify literature’s value, and savour more fully the pleasures of language and form, of idea and insight that works of literature offer. In the following villanelle, I suggest how you might begin.
The Art of Reading
The art of reading isn’t hard to master,
some say. But I say au contraire; not so.
It is no small achievement to read well,
with intense absorption in the text.
It requires attention and discernment.
The art of reading takes effort to master.
It requires reading many kinds of works,
some easy, some more difficult.
To read good books and read them truly well
with skill and confidence, with ease and grace
deepens understanding, makes one wise.
To learn the art of reading – to become a master –
read widely and deeply, re-read and read aloud,
make observations, ask questions of what you read.
It’s no small gain to read supremely well.
It’s a skill for lifelong learning pleasure.
Read for fun as well as learning – for delight.
The art of reading takes some time to master,
in pixels or in print. Go slow. Enjoy. Read well.
To reap the benefits of reading literature with greater pleasure and appreciation, here are some of the most important things you can do:
Pay close attention and question what you’re reading
Reading with insight and toward deeper understanding requires paying close attention, noticing as much as you can about the text from the beginning. Attending to a work carefully will prepare you to reflect on it, engage with it and ask questions. That’s the key – bring to bear your attentive, observant, questioning self on your reading.
Consider the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina (1877), in its acclaimed 2000 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
What you might notice about this sentence first, perhaps, is its parallel structure. Tolstoy’s line balances and contrasts happy families with unhappy ones. It asserts that they differ in how they experience happiness and unhappiness.
OK. So that’s what Tolstoy posits as he launches his 800-page novel. He sets up an early expectation that his book will be about families, some happy and some unhappy. We need to read the book, of course, to find out what their happiness and unhappiness consists of, and how they became happy and unhappy families along the way.
In reflecting on Tolstoy’s sentence, your thinking might take the form of questioning its assertion. You might qualify it, or perhaps hold in abeyance your agreement or disagreement. You might even imagine a reversal of what the sentence says, revising it this way: ‘All unhappy families are alike; each happy family is happy in its own way.’ Your careful observations about Tolstoy’s sentence will lead to questions, which will lead to reflection, which illustrates how you can engage actively with a writer’s work.
Read, and then read again
Reading with understanding, appreciation and pleasure requires re-reading. Why is this so? Re-reading is critical because there are so many things going on in a work of literature that you can’t grasp them all in a single reading – no one can. You need time to notice and reflect; to revisit and re-see what’s there, to ensure that what you observed in your preliminary excursion through an essay or poem or story is indeed there. And you need an opportunity to see what you might have missed. In your second and subsequent traversals of a work, you’ll notice more, question more, think more, understand more, and in the process deepen your reading pleasure.
Consider this brief two-line poem by Robert Frost:
The Span of Life (1936)
The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
What do you notice on a quick first reading of these lines? Perhaps that they rhyme; Frost’s poem is a couplet. Next, that the poem describes a dog; in the present, an old dog. Seeing his ageing canine companion, the speaker remembers when he was a little pup. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. Right?
Well, not exactly – though that’s the gist of what the poem shows us. But what if you looked more carefully; what if you were to reflect a little on what the poem might be suggesting. Noticing involves listening as well as looking, so try to hear the poem in your inner ear. In addition to rhyme, you will hear a metrical beat, a rhythm to the words in each line. You hear and feel the slow motion of the first line, as the first five syllables are all stressed. You hear the first line moving with difficulty while the second line skips along. And though the second line looks shorter than the first visually, it contains only one less syllable.
What might you make of these observations? You might ask yourself why the poet stresses heavily the words in the first line about the old dog, why he uses words with syllables that are hard to pronounce, and why he uses words and syllables that are easy to pronounce in the second line about the young pup. You might attend more carefully to the description of the old dog having difficulty getting up – barking ‘backward’ (a visual image). Doing so, you might notice the contrast between that difficult action and his movements as a pup. That youthful image is not given us by the poet, but it’s implied so that we might imagine it.
Finally, what do you notice about the poem’s title, ‘The Span of Life’? Has Frost given us in two brief lines an image and example of a life span – the life span of his dog? Yes, of course. But he gives us something more as well: he invites us to consider not just a span of life – the dog’s – but the span of life, which includes the span of life of the poem’s human speaker. After all, the speaker has aged, too, along with his dog. And though the dog ages faster, the speaker ages as well – ‘I can remember,’ he says. And so do we, especially if we have seen our own pets age and other people age, including ourselves.
In looking at and listening to Frost’s little poem together, we’ve been making observations about its words and sounds and images. And we’ve been raising questions about its meaning and significance. Those observations and questions lead us to see how these two aspects of writing are connected. As the English poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1711: ‘The sound must seem an echo to the sense.’
Read more slowly
Another way to deepen your appreciation and pleasure in literature is to slow down. You will benefit from a slow reading of longer, more ambitious works, just as you did with ‘The Span of Life’. Take your time with them. There’s no rush to finish; and there should be no rush to interpretation either. Take time to enjoy the way the writer presents his or her thinking, to reflect on what a work is saying to you, to mull over the insights you glean and to enjoy the writer’s craft and art.
When I’m reading something of interest and value, I will often limit myself to one chapter a day, for example, or perhaps 20 or 30 minutes of reading time followed by five or 10 minutes to think, reflect and jot notes and questions. Novels I love I read this way. An example: when I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72), after a long day’s work, I allotted myself one hour per evening, late at night just before bedtime. In so doing, I lived in that 19th-century milieu for more than a month, soaking up and savouring the book’s country village atmosphere. Taking my time allowed me to digest Eliot’s psychological analysis of her characters, to revel in her complex plotting and her philosophical provocations to thinking. A little at a time. Easy as you go. Stretch out your reading pleasure.
In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a book that profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, we’re advised to read ‘deliberately’ – weighing and considering what we read. Thoreau suggests that we give to our reading of a work the same kind and degree of care that the author took in writing it, which in the case of Walden was seven drafts over nine years. ‘Books,’ he writes, ‘must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.’ Now, I’m not suggesting you take nine years to read Walden. I am advocating, however, that you give such a finely crafted book the attention it deserves for both its content and its style. For example, consider this well-known sentence from Thoreau’s book, both for what it says and how it says it: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’ Now that’s a provocative idea about individualism, couched in a pair of elegantly crafted sentences; they march to their own stately rhythm, and their beauty makes Thoreau’s idea memorable.
Yet another way to heighten your reading appreciation and understanding is to read some parts of the text aloud – a sentence or even an entire page. Reading Thoreau’s sentence aloud, for example, will help you notice things you’re likely to miss during silent reading. The ear (and voice) prompt the eye to see, absorb more of the writer’s craft and art. The art of reading and the craft of writing owe as much to the ear as to the eye. Before I invite you to read aloud a paragraph of prose fiction, I encourage you to return to Frost’s ‘The Span of Life’ and to read its two lines aloud. Why? Because I want you to feel in your body – in your mouth especially – as you speak the words aloud, how hard it is to speak the first line: ‘The old dog barks backward without getting up.’ Did you feel your tongue against your palate enunciating the Ds and Gs and hard CK sounds? Did you feel the stress on the first five syllables, and the sentence speed up afterwards?
Now feel in your mouth and on your lips and tongue how easily you can speak its second line: ‘I can remember when he was a pup.’ We form the consonants in this line with our lips. And for the R and W and ‘he’, we simply blow air through our mouths to pronounce. Hard versus easy. Old dog. Young pup. So re-read and read aloud for greater insight and pleasure.
Let’s now take up the prose example I promised you. The following paragraph concludes ‘The Dead’, the final story in Dubliners (1914), a collection of linked short stories by James Joyce:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Joyce’s description of the snow falling throughout Ireland is exquisite, a lyrical prose poem. I have shared this ending with hundreds of students, always inevitably succumbing, myself, to its sheer beauty of sound and rhythm. I hope you enjoyed the experience of reading the paragraph aloud – feeling its steady rhythm, hearing its repetition of ‘falling’, its echoing alliterations in ‘crooked crosses’ and ‘soul swooned slowly’, and Joyce’s nifty shift with the snow, first ‘falling softly’ and ‘softly falling’, and then ‘falling faintly and ‘faintly falling’.
These few observations about Joyce’s language touch on the tone and texture of the passage – the compassion it carries in those rhythms and repetitions. Joyce’s masterful prose needs to be read aloud to be fully appreciated. I hope you agree, and will add reading aloud to your repertoire of reading practices to deepen your pleasure.
Join me in a deep-reading experience
To further demonstrate the rewards – of insight and pleasure, of understanding, experience and wisdom – to be reaped from reading literature well (by applying the strategies outlined in this Guide), I invite you to read along with me the opening paragraphs of a recent essay, ‘A Street Full of Splendid Strangers’ (2019), by the American writer Leslie Jamison, originally published in The Atlantic magazine, and reprinted in André Aciman’s edited collection The Best American Essays 2020. Here is how Jamison begins her essay:
When I was young, the beauty of church always belonged to other people: the believers. They saw the same stained glass I saw, but when its jewelled light cut their skin into kaleidoscopic colours, they somehow belonged in that light in a way I never would. They could feel the lilt and soar of the hymns as truth, as collective yearning, as a tin-can telephone connecting them to God. That’s what I told myself. I told myself I was alien to that beauty – I’d never be anything but an interloper lurking just outside its grace.
Let’s begin with a few observations about the writer’s first sentence. Jamison immediately places us in church; she suggests that being in church can be uplifting for people – a beautiful experience – but that this experience is one she does not share. She emphasises this point with her last four words and her use of the colon. This experience of beauty, Jamison insists, belongs to ‘other people: the believers’. She feels somehow shut out from that experience. That’s a striking admission for jump-starting an essay. You might wonder, as I did, why that might be the case. Jamison answers our question later, but first she tells us what the experience is like for those ‘others’, providing us with vivid details so we can imagine what those ‘believers’ see and hear of beauty in church.
Ironically, she notes that she sees the same stained glass they see, describing vividly its ‘jewelled light’ and ‘kaleidoscopic colours’. In doing so, however, she separates herself from those other believers: ‘they somehow belonged’ Jamison writes, ‘in a way I never would’. Here, again, you might wonder why she doesn’t belong, and perhaps why she suggests that she not only doesn’t belong now, but that she doesn’t see herself as ever belonging, as ever being able to experience the beauty of church as believers do. We might surmise that it has something to do with belief – with faith – and that it is religious faith that separates Jamison from the believers and their more deeply emotional experience of the beauty they experience in church. We don’t know that, of course, but we might infer it, given the way Jamison distinguishes herself from the congregation of believers.
So far, we’re about halfway through that opening paragraph. Slowing down this way to notice and wonder – to ask questions – will likely get you thinking, not only about Jamison’s church experience, but also about your own. Jamison’s details – first visual, then aural – might well evoke the sights and sounds (and perhaps also the tastes and smells) of your own remembered church experiences. In this way, the act of reading is connected with your own life and past. Perhaps you share in the experiences Jamison imagines for the believers she describes or, conversely, perhaps you share Jamison’s experience of self-exclusion. Alternatively, maybe reflection on this passage and the questions it prompts have taken you in other directions entirely.
One of the most striking sentences in Jamison’s first paragraph is the third, the sentence about sounds, where she notes that those other believers could feel the rhythmic ‘lilt and soar of the hymns’. The hymns, she imagines, evoke feeling, emotion, for the believers, though not for Jamison, as she once again separates herself from the ‘truth’ and the ‘collective yearning’ she presumes those believers experience. That sentence about sounds and what they evoke in church, however, has something more in it – another detail: the ‘telephone connecting them to God’. Did you notice and wonder about Jamison’s use of the word ‘tin-can’ to describe the telephone?
What image does she conjure with that adjective? What tone do you hear in that word? A little disdain, perhaps?
We’re undertaking here with this passage what we did earlier in this Guide, as we noticed textual details and raised questions about them, as we slowed down our reading and re-read some sentences, and as we read aloud.
The last two sentences of Jamison’s opening paragraph pivot to what she told herself.
She uses that phrase twice, for emphasis. And what Jamison tells herself is that she’s an ‘interloper’, an ‘alien’ presence, who does not, cannot, and will never share the experience of beauty that the church’s believers possess, noting that she lurks ‘just outside its grace’.
And what a word that is, ‘grace’, to conclude a paragraph about the beauty experienced in church. It’s a loaded word, one appropriate in the context of religious belief and churchgoing, and one that captures well what Jamison is missing, how she lacks the benevolent gift of grace. As you read this concluding sentence, and as you mull over the significance of what Jamison is suggesting in her first paragraph overall, you might wonder where she will go next with her essay. You might wonder whether there could be some other form of grace available to her.
Here is how Jamison continues in her second paragraph:
Some version of that girl I’d been in church – with legs too long for her denim overalls, and palms covered with half-moon crescents where she’d dug her nails into her skin – was summoned for a different rapture, years later, by the photography of Garry Winogrand. Some version of that girl was told: This is beauty you belong in. The first time I entered the Brooklyn Museum’s 2019 exhibit of his colour photography, part of its force was this immediate sense of invitation, as if a door had been carved in a wall, leading to some new world, and now I could cross into it – or perhaps simply see more clearly that I’d been living in that miraculous world all along. It had only disguised itself as something familiar, or banal.
Let’s note, first, the splendid, vivid details of that long opening sentence, the description heightened by being sandwiched between the double dashes. Let’s observe, too, how Jamison takes herself and us to another place – to the Brooklyn Museum, a different kind of sublime space, one in which Jamison, and we, can experience beauty unconnected to church and religious faith. Let’s remark, too, on Jamison’s choice of being ‘summoned’, to something she can’t resist, and her choice of ‘rapture’, a word rich in both spiritual and sensual connotations. Jamison feels a special but different kind of grace is something that can be hers, and you might notice that this transcendent experience of beauty is occasioned by an exhibition of colour photographs, an echo perhaps of the church’s coloured stained glass.
Jamison reserves, for the last part of the paragraph, a series of striking images that capture her sense of the splendour and grandeur of seeing Winogrand’s photographs. She concludes the paragraph with the stunning idea that the ‘miraculous world’ Winogrand’s photographs create has been there all along – in the everyday world that Jamison, and we, inhabit. It’s just that she and we haven’t noticed its beauty, and that it takes an artist like Winogrand to open our eyes and hearts and minds to its hidden-in-plain-sight glory. A final irony is that the miraculous beauty Winogrand captures, and that Jamison describes, has not only been available all along, but that it is ‘familiar’, ‘banal’ even. Beauty lurks where we least expect to find it. Glory reveals itself to us in seemingly ordinary moments – if we know where to find it, how to see in those moments an astonishing, luminous radiance.
Are you curious as to what Jamison saw at the exhibition of Winogrand’s photography? Here is a sampling of the pictures she describes in her essay:
A woman propped on her elbows on her beach towel, a messy MICKEY stick-and-poke tattoo on her arm, cat’s-eye sunglasses hiding her mood. A man lying on his back, with his blue-canvas sneakers tucked beside him and the sunlight pouring across his body, the cigar in his mouth pointed straight up toward the sky … a family having a picnic against a backdrop of rolling white sand dunes; street clowns at a parade beneath a sign advertising DALLAS’ FINEST HAMBURGERS; flight attendants in their powder-blue suits, clustered on an asphalt divider, shadowed by palm trees and boxy, off-white airport hotels.
What’s especially interesting about the Winogrand photography exhibit is that his pictures were slides that rotated every eight seconds for the horizontal images and every 13 seconds for the vertical images. Viewers observed them more than once, a little at a time, and always in relation to different images appearing on the museum walls. Jamison characterises her experience of the moving images as ‘a tutorial in the proximity of the sacred’, a phrase that takes us back to the notion of ‘grace’ with which she began her essay. Her ‘tutorial’ teaches us to think about what ‘grace’ and the ‘sacred’ might mean for us and how they might manifest in our lives.
Reading with this degree of attention and care brings benefits beyond compare. Reading literary works, including Jamison’s essay, in this way affords some of the same experiences for which Jamison reads and celebrates Winogrand’s photographs: for the shared feelings they evoke, for a sense of other people’s humanity, for a sense of what others care about, for a glimpse of what they do and make and love. Reading literature disciplines us, strengthens our powers of focus, aids our capacity for noticing, prompts our inclination to ask questions and to make connections. Making a habit of reading slowly, carefully, deliberately a work like Jamison’s essay will enable you to participate in a provocative and engaging conversation that leads your thinking in directions you couldn’t have imagined before you started. I invite you to read the rest of Jamison’s splendid essay, which you can find online or in The Best American Essays 2020 collection; below, I’ve provided some more suggestions for deeper reading.
A few suggestions for deepening your reading pleasure, starting with books then moving on to my recommendations for literary book clubs and podcasts:
I hope my own book You Are What You Read (2021) will make you want to read, especially literature. Offering guidance and advice, I demonstrate what engaged, productive reading looks like and feels like through questioning literary works, seeking their embodied truths, discovering their dialectical energies, and engaging with the minds and hearts of writers.
Martin Puchner’s book The Written World (2017) is a tour de force that explains how major literary works inscribe the cultures they embody and influence the values those cultures sustain. Through 16 foundational texts from more than 4,000 years of world literature, the author explains how writing has inspired the rise and fall of empires and nations, sparked philosophical and political debates, and led to the emergence of religious beliefs.
Will Schwalbe’s guide Books for Living (2016) offers a celebration of reading in general and an impassioned recommendation of books to shepherd us through our daily lives. He explains why he cherishes each book he discusses, how it helped him in living his own life, and how it broadened and deepened his understanding of the world.
Alberto Manguel’s book A Reader on Reading (2011) argues that the activity of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species. In reading the words on our pages and screens, we enter the worlds they describe and embrace. Topics include the connection between books and our bodies, the power of censorship, the art of translation, and more. Books, contends Manguel, lend coherence to our world and our lives.
The online series the Borderless Book Club was established by several small European publishing houses to discuss translated literature. In a fortnightly Zoom meeting that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world, the publishers take turns to present a book from their catalogues, and authors and translators are invited to discuss their work. In addition, the selected titles are sometimes discounted.
The Silent Book Club was founded in 2012 by two friends in San Francisco, Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich, ‘to get out of the house and meet up with a group – and not be forced to make awkward happy-hour conversation, but to sit quietly for an hour and then chat about books,’ de la Mare says. Since then, the club has grown to 260 chapters around the world in 31 countries, providing a place for people ‘to gather in person and online to read together in quiet camaraderie’.
The Literary Friction podcast is a conversation about books and ideas, hosted by another two friends, Carrie Plitt in Oxford and Octavia Bright in London. Each month, they interview an author about their book and build the show around a related theme – anything from resistance to coastlines to corpses. Listen in for lively discussion, book recommendations and a little music too.
Finally, I recommend the podcast On the Road with Penguin Classics in which the team takes a stroll around the world’s favourite books. Hosted by the writer and editor Henry Eliot, author of The Penguin Classics Book (2018), each week the podcast heads to a different literary location to explore a book in the company of readers.