Amorous reading and the amorous life

Amorous reading seeks out texts that will teach one how to read. When we imagine a person who reads in this way, perhaps we think of the aspiring preliterate child, hunched over and relishing their primer. If we do, it’s probably because learning how to read is something we usually think we did as children, and have been finished doing for a very long time. If someone were to ask us “Do you know how to read?” we’d raise our chins, insulted, and bark in anger “Of course!”

The kind of reading I have in mind, though, reads as if it’s not so sure. What prompts it are moments of elevating ignorance. You pick up a text, secure in your literacy, but as you begin reading are bewildered. Most of us would put it aside more times than not, never to return. However, for some reason you don’t. Perhaps you’ve done so many times with other such texts. Or perhaps there have been times when you persisted, but only to find assurance of your own cleverness, or simply to discharge some obligation. This time, though, amidst the confusion, and any other motives you might have, there’s something about the text itself that solicits you. It’s like encountering a language you’ve never heard before, and yet discovering to your shock that it’s your native tongue. It had never occurred to you that language could do quite this—whatever this is—and you set yourself the task of learning how to read anew, and thus learn the language that in a trivial sense you already speak. You plunge further into the text, striving to let it transform your practice of reading—or even that of using language at all.

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World without setting: Beckett’s The Lost Ones

Among the tasks that fiction writers usually set for themselves is to craft some depiction of place. There are, for example, the settings for stories: along with character, theme, and plot, one among the standard list of particulars that readers expect writers to provide. However, a fictional place need not be a setting. That is, a setting is always a setting for. It’s made up of the location or locations where the story takes place. As such, it’s given the lower billing. It functions as the stage on which the main attraction—usually some drama of human affairs—unfolds. Of course, writers often take great care constructing their settings. However, the same is true of set designers for films and plays. Such efforts, magnificent as their fruits might be, don’t detract from the point. Fictional places, when they take the form of settings, are containers: vessels for delivering the heart of the fiction to the reader.

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The Infinitude of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake is a book about anything and everything. Of course, the phrase “anything and everything” is usually used hyperbolically. However, I mean it quite literally. Whereas most literary works are only about some things, the Wake is about anything and everything: its world is absolutely unbounded, and this unboundedness is one of its central preoccupations. In the book, Joyce took up a cosmic impulse characteristic of great religious texts and metaphysical treatises, and found a way to give it distinctive literary expression.

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