Someone accused me somewhere of not doing enough close-reading, but
close-reading is not my inclination as you may have guessed. I prefer to “read, and run”. If I enjoy a novel, then so be it; – I’m not that
interested in looking any further into the question. The more I think through the matter, the more I feel a distinction should be made between reading
and studying novels. Reading I see as a fairly irrational process, in which one sinks oneself into a text, one indulges oneself in the enjoyment of
the thing (or, perhaps, one doesn’t); – whereas studying is, amongst other things, an attempt to rationalise one’s enjoyment, or to understand the
process of it. Even the intention of writing a brief review of a book in some kind of blog, I am inclined to belief leads to an attempt to study a
work rather than read it, since suddenly one reads with the intention of justifying the feelings one is having whilst reading, and this changes the
act of the reading; – in my opinion, dilutes the enjoyment.
Another example (which may be banal in its way, but which I would contend applies
to any information derived about a text from thoughts other than your own – particularly opinions expressed about a text by others claiming to
interpret it) was, in reading The Curious Incident of the Dog… (or at least, the part I did read), I couldn’t get out of my head the
observation on the cover that it was “like The Catcher in the Rye, crossed with The Sound and The Fury” (or was it just, Salinger
meets Faulkner). In a sense, maybe, but the notion – which amused my foolish brain – entirely took over my reading of the book.
started, a long time back, as a series of book reviews, but even back then I felt the way I’d read books previously was becoming distorted by the
need to say some about the books and to justify myself; when I enjoyed a book, I searched now to find what it was in it I enjoyed – at the very least,
to find some sort of angle I could discuss. So I read my Le Clezio now, and I read it differently, feeling I have to evaluate it. Yet I don’t want
to, I just want to read the books and enjoy them as before. – Then why do I bother? Because equally it frustrates me that when I find great joy in
reading such and such a work, I want to express this to other people and yet (as I’ve always found) in truth I cannot – I cannot explain to anybody
why it means so much to me.
Which is why my book reviews have tended, of late, to have become more generalised affairs.
return to reading of the close variety: I was reading a book called Shtetl, by Eva Hoffman, last night – getting some background on the
Jewish Pale of Settlement for my Yiddish literary project – and came across the following paragraph:
In the yeshivas, the young
scholars sat in pairs, concentrating on a discrete passage of the Talmud each day and questioning one another about its meaning and message – or, its
meanings and messages. The method of exegesis they employed, developed in Poland and disseminated throughout the Ashkenazic world, was evocatively
called pilpul, or pepper. It involved a painstaking search for contradictions and paradoxes between the Bible and the commentaries, for
multiple significances of words, and for hidden puns. In other words, the students were looking for those grains of pepper that disturbed the harmony
of the text and that might therefore be a clue, an opening, to further truths. When this methodology was carried to excess, it was called
hilluk, which means something like hair-splitting.
And of course, reading that, I didn’t need to read the following
paragraph to draw its conclusion:
It is no wonder, perhaps, that later so many Jewish students turned to the study of law, which
depends on a similar kind of argumentation, or that scholars who emerged from the Talmudic tradition went on to become masters of modern literary
I found myself wondering whether it could be proven that one (not necessarily Talmudic exegesis though) could be
derived from the other. But then in Talmudic, Koranic or Biblical exegesis at least there is a clear moral and religious intent behind the practice,
whereas the modern exegesis of texts seems just an empty simulacrum of this process, an exercise of no worth even to the self.