What Are Words For?

On the Work of Reading

I’ve always thought the purpose of a book, any writing, really. is to prompt one to think. Or think anew.

Lately, though,  my thoughts seem self-propelled, rambling in no particular direction with only a portion of the questions I’m considering attributable to whatever I’m reading.  And yet I can’t say they are unrelated, either.

What I find myself wondering, mostly, is how to be fair to the mountains of words that surround me. Because I’m less and less certain it’s possible to be truly engaged with the written word.

Like many other people, my occupation requires quite a bit of reading. I need to keep current on marketing trends. I need to monitor the economic and social environment,  I need to maintain some contact with what’s happening in statistical methodology, so there’s a daily blog I check. There’s the torrent of Twitter.

That’s just the, for lack of a better word, journalism. In any given year I’ll read a dozen or so academic papers that might contain something I can apply, with or without adjustment,  in the real world.  I’ll read at least a couple of full-length books by members of the professoriate, some of which are written for an informed, educated audience and some of which are more specialized tomes.

Then there’s the grand project of filling in the gaps, reading what I should have read long ago, when some other pile of books was distracting me and the idea of a canon struck me as ridiculous. And let’s not forget the fluff.

Have I mentioned that I also have to edit and occasionally write copy?

It’s fair to say my life is full of, if not cluttered with, words. Writing them takes time. Consuming them takes time. And the fact that I depend a lot of time measuring the impact of words in dollars and cents has made me more sensitive to the time involved. I read a lot and it isn’t enough. I must be robbing some authors of my full attention, and that can’t be fair to them, or me.

Fluff’s important, too.

Yet we live in a world where that does not seem to trouble many people.

Public radio and podcasts are full of people talking at length about 400-page books, day after day. They can’t possibly have read them all. And I’m not sure the scholars are any better. On the occasions I’ve spent in their company outside the classroom, I’m always struck by how petty-seeming and careerist many of them are.

The problem may best be described by Michael O’Malley’s memorable phrase: “We learn to read like gutting a fish.”

That doesn’t strike me as terribly respectful. Of the writer. Of the labor. Or of the word.

But it’s what we’re stuck with.

I never got that memo. Nor did I ever learn to knuckle down and deeply immerse myself in one discipline so that my understanding was more than just a hair beyond superficial. It’s what I’m stuck with.

That, and respect for words and the writers who employ them.



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