Tag Archives: Reading habits

The Indexer

14 May

How many ways are there to read? I ask because I desire more.

One of my methods in refuting the ineluctable fuckstorm of reading a book is to love the index. Thou Index, batter mine heart! Skeletons reside within the index; or, at least, the bony, knobby base of the book rests itself on order there. Or there wrests itself to order. Either way, I say “fuckstorm of reading” because—as I’ve written here elsewhere in the past—my feeble mind cannot cage each bit and tid of a book, never will, and reading has become in these last years a desperate foraging for brain tinsel. The process looking similar to the small magpie-gleaned sundries that will illuminate the going-glimmer nest within.

A fuckstorm isn’t wholly negative, by the way. I mean, it’s a raging swirl of fuck, which can be quite pleasant AND brow-furrowed, to put it delicately. But overall, I use the word because of the chaos and capaciousness of “fuck” and “storm,” and because an index is the clarion call of Order, capital-O. Alphabetization, double columns, italics, numbers, logic, sequence.

And I so need Order, folks. Fashioning one’s self an Indexer reins that baggage in with bungee cords. This is my alternate method of reading when the going gets stale. Believe me: staleness creeps like death on tender feline paws.

As a hopeful reader, I’ll die ignorant, to be sure. But for some reason I think the index will save me. When I despair too much, I flip to the back-end and see what’s choice, what’s chosen, what’s important enough to be listed. Lists are a habit of mine. I like marking them in inked phalanxes on the endpaper or flyleaf. My admiration for structure and dissection is depthless. I feel like there would be nothing more suitable for me than to index book after book.

The downside of indices is that they often only appear in non-fiction books. Rare is the novel that contains one. Why so? Fiction deserves as much eggheaded attention as anything else in the index department. As I’m apportioning the voluminousness of Moby-Dick, I’d kill for an index. Which I’m kind of surprised Melville didn’t think of, all the other bells and whistles considered. Searching under the heading “Whale” would be worth the cost of entry.

What wouldn’t work so well with indexing? Haikus, for sure.

On my desk, a copy of Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield. Page 229, the entry “Poetry”:


‘two sorts of’, 12, 111-12
existence of depends on inner experience, 41-2, 49
and on Prosaic principles, 87, 103-4, 105
defined by Coleridge, 58
Great, 166, 170, 178 et seq. ; defined, 181
Modern, 33 et. seq., 148-9, 155-8, 170, 201
as a possession, 52, 55 et seq.
‘joint-stock’, 51
spoken and read, 98-9
fluid and architectural, 86 et seq.
fashionable contrast with science, 63, 138-40

What we have before us is itself a kind of poetry. As I read down the ladder here, I find myself enthralled with the contents before I devour them. The index, then, is poetic foreplay, if you will. Say I came to the index first and saw this entry. I’m immediately curious about our “two sorts” of poetry. Are they the Great and the Modern labeled below? And why is Great Poetry defined, but Modern Poetry isn’t? I’m now wondering what Owen Barfield has against defining the Moderns. Plenty of pages are devoted to both. The answer is within.

Move now to the “existence of depends on inner experience.” How metaphysical. But only three pages! Perhaps poetry isn’t as inner as I once thought. Barfield must not think it necessitates inner experience. Though he does require Coleridge’s thoughts on the matter. And I can say that a small part of my conscience is keen, more anticipatory,  to see proper names in indexes. As I mow the lawn of the index, moving systematically up and down the columns, I’m eyeballing names to latch onto, to compute. Easily recognizable names, or known names, creates a sense of knowingness, or familiarity–a feeling that, hey, I can trust this guy. But anyway…

Poetry then transforms into a possession, joint-stock, and a fashionable contrast with science. The index has distilled the book’s bulk into a potent liquor. Quaff deeply.  Here we can get drunk together on the accidental collision that Order ordains. The index, in my mind’s eye, is like having different groups of friends mingle for the first time. Confusing, awkward, serendipitous.

On page 228, Milton elbows Money, Muller, Music, Mystic, and Myth. The index allows this unusual juxtaposition, seeing as none of these subjects share page-space. And while the author can’t comment upon these relationships, it’s fascinating to see disparate words make even a meager connection.

I would never, of course, strongly recommend that one read a book strictly on this plan. But isn’t it sort of delicious to have the curtain pulled back and the author’s passions exposed? A book declares itself as a stricture on the Nature of Ideas, organizing words into a set design for the reader, their intentions and needs be damned. Life, whipped.

An index also lays out the complexity of the book into pristine statements, as if a yogi lived in the binding, dreaming up witty apercus. By a small transposition on the page, I come up with these sentences from Barfield’s book, under the index heading of Self-consciousness, 204-10.

Self-consciousness depends on abstract thought and vice versa.
Self-consciousness is necessary for metaphor-making.
Self-consciousness produces ‘poetry.’
Self-consciousness opposed to inspiration.
Self-consciousness opposed to cognition.
Self-consciousness opposed to thinking.
Self-consciousness creation out of full.
Self-consciousness unrelieved modern.
Self-consciousness and Kant.

But there’s mystery in numbers. And page numbers can occlude understanding and Order.

Ryhthm apparently shows up on pages 47, 98 et seq., 146 et seq., and 157-8. Why, in a book on poetic diction, does the subject of rhythm only appear on five pages? Lunacy. But, when I look up what the Latin abbreviation et seq. stands for, I find “et sequens,” or, “and that which follows.” In fact, now that I nose closer, the abbr. litters every index page like cigarette butts in a park glen.

Supposing I’m speaking out of school on the subject of reading. That my fuckstorms aren’t as fuckish as all that. They probably aren’t. I’m just trying to ford my way through a minor deluge in the creek. And if I constantly and doggedly read a book in the prescribed way, then I will lose my lust for reading and reading its luster. As an homage, I offer my own hypothetical index entry.

READING (see Education), 193, 193 n, 206-7

defined, i-xi, 2
indexes, 52, 103
by pale fire, 198
with friends, 40-1, 72, 74, 83-6
“accidental,” 1-50, 100-164
“purposeful,” 51-99
while driving, 100-10, 90-99
madness in absence of, 63-70
as a fashionable trait in society, 234
sexual attraction to, 234-260
moonlights as Valium, 261
as opposed to Facebook, 208, 210, 225
as a dying art, 1, 9
as a recuperative lifestyle and restorative, 13, 15 et seq. 

Reading on the Job & Writing Your Values

27 Apr

At the nadir of my walk yesterday, I witnessed a carline abandon a withered Chevy Lumina and achingly waddle up the weedy walk to her home. Her countenance stoned me. It was grave and stygian, as if Charon still sat in the passenger seat smoking a Kool. A deceptively happy cerulean smock still covered her front. Rainbow letters said she worked at Menard’s. Her scruffy ponytail fell out of the band, lopsided and sad.

She didn’t notice me. Her head was down. I would’ve felt like a schmuck if she had, because I cradled Tuesday’s New York Times and a Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick under my left arm. Such a rube I am! Would it not be an offence to her, holding these bourgeois symbols of free time?—because surely the Times and Melville aren’t priorities for an eight-hour-a-day worker. Reading is behooved by sustained silence and solitude. It is instigated by curiosity or the need for Otherness: spies, fantasy, wizards, 18th c. dames and lords, and so on. Ms. Menard didn’t have an eggshell’s worth of free time from the look of her pained gait. Her curiosity: obliterated.

The workaday world is rough. Long shifts, where cubicles reign hard all around and fluorescent lighting pushes down. Micro-managing and tiny tyrant jefes. From what I glean, boredom is worst. Dull and mossy: boredom kills. Though, some folks stand all day in big box stores or in swanky retail chains, chanting, “Thanks for shopping blank, please come again.” Some work construction or farm or sweat on the line in a kitchen. What do they do when they get off work?

At Vouched, we spend a lot of time promoting small press fiction, independent fiction, and new authors. I spend a lot of time asking who reads our site, and further: who reads independent fiction? Grad students and adjunct professors with MFAs? College grads who once played in an emo band? I’m generalizing, obviously, but I do wonder. How broad the cast? How wide the seine?

Writers consider audience, presumably. Who’s left out is an oddity to me. I plotz endlessly over who won’t like my work. Ms. Menard could possibly enjoy Herman Melville, despite her lack of knowledge on whaling. Perhaps she’d enjoy Matt Bell, Blake Butler, or Brandi Wells and Roxane Gay?

Do working class people read small press fiction? If not, why? And why not?

Lower-class values are different than upper-class values. On the whole, what are the values of independent writers, whether raised as lower, middle, or upper class–and does it matter if we don’t share them? The grand plan of “capital-A” Art is to transcend those differences, but I think it’s harder now than ever to do so. Poetry and fiction are stonewalled by certain denizens just because it is poetry or fiction. I’ve heard my own students, at a private college, say that theater isn’t “real life,” so it “doesn’t matter at all.” Poetry is for “fags” or “girls.” Etc. Do we, as John Gardner claims, have a moral obligation to write toward those people who are excluded from the obvious audience of independent literature, or literature in general? Or are we only having fun making the small “in” group laugh at the larger American situation?

If given a solid book sold by Vouched, would Ms. Menard shrug, laugh, cry, or simply call us a circle jerk?

I imagine our crabbed woman engaging in one of the following after work: care of a family, yard work, laundry, various domestic chores, going to the local for a beer and a chat with friends, propping the feet up and watching television or a Redbox selection, napping, or cruising the internet.Transposing sadness on Ms. Menard is unfair. I don’t know what she lives and feels. Perhaps Ms. Menard possesses a solid sunny disposition. Though I would wager that her face spoke all. Reading sits firmly on a blue back burner.

What struck me was how little time a full-time worker has to read, if they want to. If they want to. This phrase is essential because reading is so active, so in need of will and agency. My dear partner and wife, who works long days with insane demands, loves reading, but has no time. Reading has chilled into a slimy soup for her. It’s unattractive and matte. After reading reports all day, and talking to clients on the phone, she has no need or desire or energy for reading. I didn’t realize how the rationalization of the day’s hours into work units ruins the availability of reading time.

I know many people read Kindles or Nooks or books on trams, trains, buses, and such. Adamant readers sneak in sentences and phrases under cover of diligent work habits. Lifelong readers always will, and maybe that’s all a writer has to worry about: the reading reader, the already-converted. Or the Wal-Mart reader: Nora Roberts, bestsellers, Stephen King, etc.

Still, I wonder what can be done to get more working people reading indie lit.? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? Will they want to? Should we let the working folks graft hard all day, then come home and slide into sleep?

Philip Larkin said he wrote for those “who drift, loaded hopelessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.”

Is this not Ms. Menard and her ilk? Is she not like Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney?

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

I don’t want them to not know. We want our writing to make everyone a part of those whom Larkin calls “the less deceived.” When writers think of audience—if they do at all—do they think about Ms. Menard? Should we? Why? And if writers will, how do they reach her, Dear Ms. Menard, deep in aisle twenty-three of a huge hardware store, listening to the drone of Save big money at Menard’s!, grasping a packet of 60 watt light bulbs on a high shelf for an ambling grumpy-ass fucker who never says “thank you”?