Reading for depth

6ecab839eb5342c69f859cfb825b9f17As a writer, I try to read well. After all, that’s part of a writer’s work: read, read, read. I’ve always interpreted that advice to mean reading widely. Read lots of different authors, lots of different books, lots of different styles.

To a point, that’s good.

To a point.

Yesterday, I reached my tipping point.

I was sitting in the carpool line, reading a literary novel, when I suddenly thought, “I’m sick of this.” Yet another middle-aged bored housewife who starts an affair because she’s depressed.

Admittedly, the novel was inspired by Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed. And the prose was beautifully written. And it was (according to the blurb writers, all acclaimed authors themselves) brilliant.

I couldn’t stomach it.

On some level, I sympathize with a housewife feeling like an outsider in her community: she’s an American living in Switzerland who doesn’t speak German, and I’m a writer living in a tech-oriented community who doesn’t speak engineer.

But an affair? Really? She couldn’t do something productive: learn the language, volunteer, write a book, take up knitting, something akin to getting a life?

(Okay, before someone chews me out, I will clarify: yes, Anna is depressed, her mental illness is real, and someone who is depressed cannot necessarily just “get a life.” If Anna were a real person, I’d have more sympathy (but not a lot, because lying to your therapist, who is trying to help you, is self-defeating. And Anna lies about almost everything. Does she even want help?) In fiction, though, passivity is boring. And Anna is very passive; everything from her marriage to her pregnancy to living in a foreign country just “happens” to her without any interference from her. If I wanted to read the internal angst of a depressed person, I’d read my journals from high school and college; at least I’d know who the other “characters” were!)

I’ve read numerous literary novels with the bored-wife-begins-affair plot. (If all you did was read lit fiction, you’d think no one in the world is happily married!)

The plot points are different.

The characters live in different worlds.

The end is the same.

I’m tired of it.

I shut the book. It’s too depressing to read about some depressed person who ends up throwing herself under a train. (I read the end.) I had just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a page-turner with a negative, chilling tone about murder and cutting, among other things. I didn’t want to read another book with death and depression and depravity running through it. I needed something with hope and redemption.

In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna begins the book as a morally upright woman; she is devastated by her own actions when she and Vronsky begin their affair. She’s sympathetic. Plus, Tolstoy has other characters wrestling with big issues and coming to various conclusions; with 800+ pages to fill, he can afford to delve deep into more than just the Anna-and-Vronsky affair.

As the carpool line started forward and children raced to their vehicles, eager to tell their mamas and daddies about the school day, I wished I’d left the literary novel at the library and gotten Anna Karenina off my bookcase instead. Re-reading Tolstoy never hurt anyone.

Recently, Glimmer Train published a short essay by Anthony DeCasper in which he addressed what it means to read like a writer. It’s not enough to read widely; we need to read deeply. Deep reading requires time, attention, and multiple readings of the same texts.

“So choose a few books that have held the test of time and reread them, studying the design by asking the whys and hows from the perspective of design and audience.” (Anthony DeCasper, “On Reading for the Beginning Narrative Artist.”)

We should find the great works and study them carefully. Find those books that are worth our time. Dig deep. Pay attention. Study, absorb, analyze, take notes, apply the principles to our own work, do what it takes to benefit from their depth.

When I get home, I’m going straight to my bookcase and finding Anna Karenina. It may not be an easy read. But it’s one that is worth my time.

 

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23 thoughts on “Reading for depth

  1. Love this post. “It’s not enough to read widely; we need to read deeply. Deep reading requires time, attention, and multiple readings of the same texts.” And while your post is not about Bible reading, the same applies to our Bibles. I think too many Christians only superficially read their Bibles.

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    1. It definitely applies to Bible reading, I agree. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing only superficial readings of it. I feel like there’s a few books of the Bible that I’ve studied in depth–Acts, Joshua, Romans–and many others have been neglected. I think churches can do the same: focus on favorite Bible passages/books/themes and fail to fully address the whole of Scripture, particularly the difficult books or ones that don’t quite “fit” well with their doctrinal bent. (In my case, that would be the book of James. I suggested that our adult Sunday School class study that book this spring–the elders had asked for suggestions–and the response was a lot of resistance.)

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      1. Exactly!! And now the class isn’t studying the book of James. I’ve stopped going to Sunday School (not over this) but my husband continues to attend, which is how I know. Very frustrating not to get to discuss the kick-butt book of the Bible (my nickname for James).

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  2. I wonder if Anna Karenina is better because Tolstoy was a devout man? Or perhaps it is because he was a Russian writer (with that wonderful Russian style that translates so readily into English) with a flare of genius and no one else had done a novel on that subject before. I am still not sure if I like Anna Karenina, because it all seems so sad and… unnecessary(?), despite the beautiful prose and exquisite characterisation, but I wholeheartedly agree about reading for depth. Shame there are no novels, at least those concurrent with Anna Karenina, about how a man has an affair and destroys his life. Men’s affairs have always been overlooked, especially within the elite/aristocracy.

    I am listening to Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell and it is about 25 hours long(!) but I’ve enjoyed every minute and I love the depth of the characters.

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    1. I think Tolstoy’s faith is a big reason for why Anna Karenina is great; also, the progression of Levin’s character, his faith, his relationship with Kitty, and things like that, make the decline of Anna bearable. Now that I’ve begun reading AK again, I also think Tolstoy’s omniscient narratorial voice is a huge factor, too. He’s not stuck only in Anna’s head, being sucked down into her moral and emotional dissolution, whereas with the modern novel, the reader is stuck with the protagonist and her aimless and often self-deceiving thoughts during psychoanalysis or during her sexual affairs. There’s really no sense of hope, like what I’ve sensed in both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

      That’s an interesting observation about men’s affairs being overlooked. Anna Karenina does show a fascinating contrast between how society viewed her, versus how society viewed her brother, Oblonsky, and his constant and never-ending affairs with various ballerinas, etc. It’s considered “normal” for the man to stray and scandalous when she does it. It seems as though that attitude has continued to this day, too!

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      1. Quality, not quantity. It’s the Western thing of packing in as much as possible. I used to read voraciously and recently in the last couple of years I have actually been adding to my stress by worrying about the fact I haven’t made time for book reading. I actually think this is because to be frank for a number of years I have struggled with depression, ill health, consequent unemployment, ups and downs and struggles with so many things. That is not conducive to being able to sit and read deeply, if at all. I believe God has allowed me to suffer in such a way for a reason. I used to look at rough, uncultured and uneducated people and wonder why they couldn’t just turn their lives around and get on and move up. Now I see through my own suffering that some people are not so lucky as even I have been. When God heals me, I will have seen both sides of life. Sometimes God allows us to suffer so we actually become compassionate towards others. How the other half lives.

        Anyway! I actually do read Christian books quite a lot and I read the Bible, too. Not too bad. I am also reading a book on the first beginnings of civilisation in the Fertile Crescent, more or less where Iraq is now. In other words, why worry? There is a season for everything under Heaven, after all…

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      2. I’ve worried about not reading enough, too–though the standard for “enough” seems to shift, depending on the person, time, and inclination. As you say, it’s that western obsession (lie) that says more equals better, when sometimes, more of anything (possessions, money, etc.) is just more burdens.

        I think God is using this rough season of your life to teach you a lot of things. Thank you for sharing them with us!

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  3. I’ve heard of this novel, Laura, but had no interest in reading it, so thank you for confirming that for me. 🙂

    I agree completely with your (and DeCasper’s) advice to find the great works and really study them. I regularly re-read the books I consider truly great: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, for example. I’ve read it several times and I love analyzing HOW Wharton depicts Lily’s character and the incremental steps in her downfall. I also just finished a wonderful novel: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It is so well-written and so different — I want to go back now and examine the way she structures it and gives the main character such a unique voice. I guess in a way I’m reading as both a reader and a writer, and that adds so much to the reading experience.

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    1. I liked the cover . . . that’s why I wanted to read it. Not a great reason, eh?

      Growing up, I never realized that there’s a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. I simply read. I think the transition between the two states of reading (or that quasi-permanent state of residence of being in-between-both-states) was helped by being able to analyze literature, thanks to my awesome lit professors in college. (Especially Dr. Cornelius, whom I’ve written about. We NEVER got away with simply reading a story and yakking about our feelings about it. We had to scrutinize every single part and see how it added up to the whole.) That was so valuable when I started writing fiction. (Though comparing my horrible first work with the literary greats also intimidated me, too. But I can’t bear to read crappy fiction at all anymore.)

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  4. “In fiction, though, passivity is boring.” – now there’s good advice for anyone who writes, Laura.

    On re-reading the ones that stand the test of time, I picked up Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing again. It is not considered one of his masterpieces, but even his second tier writing is way above most of what you find elsewhere. And there is not a passive character in the whole play.

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  5. Such good advice! In much newer genres like modern SF/F, there’s less that’s stood the test of time. The “greats” of SF are a bunch of white guys from the 60s who can’t keep racism out of their novels and don’t realize the words “woman” and “agency” can in fact belong in the same paragraph.

    But books that stand the test of our own re-reading can be equally helpful. I can pick up the Harry Potter series, or ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, or CURTSIES AND CONSPIRACIES over and over again. Every time I do, I discover one more way these books captivate me that I want to emulate. 🙂

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    1. That’s really interesting about SF/F. I don’t read in those genres often, so I was unaware (but unsurprised) that racism and sexism are in many of the older works. A lot of newer titles in those genres are ground-breaking in regards to race and gender, right?

      And you’re correct: studying books that stand up to our own re-reading is very helpful, even if they aren’t yet considered classics by whoever it is that deems certain books “classic” and others not.

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      1. Many of the newer ones are groundbreakingly diverse, yes! Like most genres, SFF started out being written by the elite–straight cis white males in the middle/upper class with a high education. But SFF only really got started in the last 60-70 years, so it’s improving rather rapidly, I’m proud to say 🙂 Maybe in a few more centuries we’ll be able to say that THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HUNGER GAMES are classics too.

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  6. Fascinating insight into the struggle readers can have with hollow, essentially self pitying themes. Yes, get up and DO something is a feeling lots of shallow novelists bring up in me.
    Please, get a life, or some backbone.
    Dorothy L. Sayers is my author dof choice when a scratchy, badly worded novel makes me want to fidget after just a few pages of reading.
    Classics get me Nathaniel Hawthorne, I’ve read everything of his many times, such rich, detailed, beautifully crafted books with characters that live in my mind as real as my family.
    Georgette Heyerdahl, yes a melodramatic writer, but I love her series of 1920s mysteries, they take me to time and place beautifully.
    I should mention I’m passionate about period writing, pot- boilers and penny-dreadfully leave me cold.
    Oh and Alexander Woollcott has the most exquisite turn of phrase and dry but often sentimental, very satisfying works, hard to find though. Paid Amazon too much money for a tiny, second hand book of essays about life and people in his environment, the Algonquin Club sounds a wonderful gathering of wit and careful sarcasm ever to meet in one place. He is long gone, but his works drip wit like honey from a comb.
    Well Laura, probably an off topic post, but I just had to share just a few of my Special time and place books….I love books!

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    1. I love books, too, so any comment about favorite authors or books is never off-topic. 🙂 Heyerdahl’s name is familiar, though I’ve never read her, and Woollcott sounds great. I’ll have to look for them. Thanks, Ruth.

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  7. I’m so glad I came back to read this post!

    You got heaps of great comments (and your post deserves just that) so I’ll make this short.
    Yes, I can do it!

    You’ve inspired me. I want to read more deeply too. I tend to read lots of memoirs because that’s what I’m drawn to and that’s what I’m writing. But II need to expand my tastes……perhaps by reading “Ruminate”! I’ve heard of the biggies like “Glimmer Train” and “Tin House”.

    I attended the “Catamaran Literary Journal” conference last summer, where I became friends with the founder of the Chicago Quarterly Review, and he told me I can submit but I honestly think my writing wouldn’t make the cut. My Catamaran teacher, memoirs Frances Lefkowitz, has been published in “The Sun” magazine & numerous journals.

    I’m intimidated by the thought of reading these acclaimed journals. Is that weird or what?
    How did you come across “Ruminate”?

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    1. I’d love to have you read Ruminate! There’s more than just fiction; we have lots of visual art and non-fiction and poetry, too. I first heard about the journal shortly after it started. My denomination’s magazine profiled the editor-in-chief and her comments on arts/writing/Christianity led me to email her. I wasn’t even writing fiction at the time, but I was thrilled that someone was trying to promote the arts. Later, after I started writing fiction, I submitted two short stories (got one form and one encouraging rejection) and two short creative non-fiction pieces (both declined, though with encouraging rejections on both). It can sometimes feel intimidating to read the best books and journals, but it helps me learn how to be a better writer. Sometimes I take notes on the works! I have all these little notebooks with lists of words and phrases and quotes from various books, and I keep them scattered around me as I write. 🙂

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