Thursday, April 12, 2012

A practice of reading

Over the dozen or so years that our "classics group" has been meeting in Sarasota, we've evolved a practice that has worked well for grappling with major works up close.We don't really have a name for it, but it goes something like this:

1. We take turns reading aloud from a text. Often we have different translations. After a section of a text is read, anyone is welcome to comment. Things they notice about the wording, or the action, or the tone, or setting, or rhythm, or characterization. Or how this segment relates to something that has come before. Often the comments tend to focus the group's attention on details that might otherwise have been overlooked. Different perspectives come into play as different readers offer observations, ask questions, or suggest some interpretive approach.

 2. After we feel we've said as much as it occurs to us to say about a particular passage, we go on to the next. In most cases, we go through whatever we're reading from beginning to end without skipping a word. We have found it rewarding to do this.

 3. That sums up our "method." It has worked well, and has led to a few effects:

  • Nearly always, the voice most often heard, the voice that one leaves the room having mostly attended to, is the voice of the poet.
  • By beginning from what we are observing in the readings before us, attention tends to remain focused on the work rather than to be dispersed through association to topics far afield.
  • Even when we do move from the particular to the general, we always find our way back to the text -- it leads the way.
  • What we share, always and foremost, is the text we are reading. Secondary literature, the essays of critics of the text, might come into the discussion, but they neither govern nor shape discussions. The work and our attentive reading of it takes precedence over received ideas or overworked commonplaces of literary tradition.

The upshot has been that time and time again, we've gained a nuanced appreciation for authors whom we thought we "knew," but whom we were happily disabused of thinking we understood. Speaking just for myself, I know I've learned a tremendous amount from the bafflement that confronts me at every turn in texts that have fascinated readers for centuries. This phenomenon of bafflement is well delineated by Paul de Man here. Our literary exercises have left me with a richer sense of the complex talents, interrelationships, and imaginative powers of a wide range of authors.

By getting to know each text in some detail, we've begun to discover the ways in which each might owe a debt to its predecessors, or how one poet can challenge a whole set of authors whom he nonetheless draws upon for inspiration and technique. Consider with what care Dante has situated a vast array of authors in his Commedia, for example. From a slightly more elevated perspective, we've begun to discern the elements and bases of the two mighty trunks of the Western tradition -- the Greco-Roman and the Hebraic -- and have been amazed at the contemporaneity of the poetic voices we've heard, and their capacity to surprise, entertain, and enlighten.

I guess we've gotten used to the idea that the smartest, most interesting, wisest voice in the room almost invariably comes from the book before us, so we've learned something about how to listen, to interpret, and to relate to other voices we've come to know.

Call it close reading, slow reading, reading aloud, or just reading, it's a remarkable thing to have experienced, over and over, for so many years. May it long continue.


  1. Is this an open group? If so, I would be interested in knowing when you are beginning a new work.

  2. We are nearing the end of working on the Paradiso. Another blog for that: