“Learning my ABCs”


Often inflated and possibly misleading, the titles I chose for my college Lit essays were always picked last and were usually the invention of unpardonable puns and last-minute panic. In my first and second year, those amateurish instincts did not end there; my essays though full of conviction and argument, failed to translate what it was I meant to say. Words were words were words were words. What I didn’t know then-though it seems stock to say, ‘…but what I do know now,’ considering I’m only six months out of college-is how to read. Writing came after. In Howard Bloom’s book, whose title inspired my last sentence, How to Read in Why, Bloom quotes Sir Francis Bacon in the prologue, and begins to answer the Why: “Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” Bacon’s counsel, to weigh and to consider, behaves in life as a slowing down; to absorb, appreciate, question, expand, feel, and ultimately grow. Though reading was done quietly and alone, and only sometimes in the company of others, literature became my way of reconciling with everything around me and widening my scope. As Bloom urges, although we read for varied yet familiar reasons, to “read deeply,” is the truest motivation.

And so with the right guidance, a couple of teachers endowed with that mentoring eye-half warmth, half craze-and the sort of vitality that a student who first appears brittle and unimpressionable, me, but who is utterly vulnerable and seeking, latches onto, I soon abandoned the impulse to empty the library’s shelves of secondary readings, and embrace the book alone. I began to read a novel’s first sentence as if it were its overture, and soon discovered that unwitting instinct to treat the first page as if were a foundation, securing and revealing, both, the novel’s path. Of course there was no formula for reading, no checklist to follow, instead, after having deserted the option of reading others’ thoughts and studies, I began to understand pattern, to notice as themes and ideas recurred and connected, as if in certain parts the letters themselves were thicker and bolder on the page. I started appreciating what was being inferred, learning the subtleties of a writer who often describes things as they appear or seem as oppose to the writer who claims to capture everything as it is.

 It was once this phenomenon started happening, that I really became a reader. To think that this only ensued in college is unfortunate, though I’m not sure any time before would have made much sense. These were the years allotted for me to inquire, to be more drastic and to create. I was filling myself with influences and memorizing favourite passages, and romanticizing characters only to recreate them in my own writing; I was, in my own art, “deforming the model,” as Barthes states. Suddenly, despite earlier resistance, I was turning to my parents for their take on things and finding solace in shared journeys. But more crucially, these were the years I chose to read as much as I could; the 19th century novel, French lyrical poetry, Greek Tragedy, Proust, Contemporary American short fiction. Invariably, my certainties shifted frequently. With each writer, came an era or war, came revolutions-French, sexual, student. But more significant was when I began to understand that certainties were needless, preventable even.

Prior to graduation last May, I made a list of books I hoped to read, ones I had no time for in the year. It was the only thing I’d planned to do; I had yet to find a job, or an apartment, or even consider something more classic , like a road trip with friends or a summer class, something light and indulgent, like printmaking or cooking. Instead, I was excited to begin devouring my reading list, each book, one by one, in no particular order. Somehow, having choice was order enough. I should have predicted what happened instead. My first months this summer were spent re-reading. Some books were still fresh in my mind and I caught myself anticipating favourite parts. Others, short fiction or essays, I hadn’t returned to in a couple of years, yet those too were suddenly alive again; that haunting perfection of a great short story, its timing matching my ride into the city. I found myself assigning my fellow passengers Dickensian names to pair with their Dickensian quirks: the way they sat squished in their seats, sweaty, even grotesque.

Each book was animated in a new way, as if cohering somehow with my daily thoughts and interactions. That nervous, existential post-college fear was quieted one afternoon as I re-read a Raymond Carver essay on writing. I read it three times, as if asking it to accompany me until I’d calmed down a bit. I learned the pleasure of returning to a book, of reading sentimentally and wistfully, with all of me. To be once again in the throes of a narrative, a romance, a familiar pursuit, reminded me that reading was something I had learned to do and that it needed practice and attention, and that despite the years each book had on me, I too was bringing something to the page. “Find now what comes near to you,” Bloom reminds-weigh and consider, weigh and consider.

Durga Chew-Bose is a writer living in New York.