Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On reading Fiction

Nonfiction English writing in a professional setting is one of my unrealized dreams. It is not with bitterness that I say it, though, but certainly with longing and regret. On the bright side my future in science will involve a significant amount of writing, but I'm afraid it will never come close to the carefully crafted, entertaining and provocative prose like that of Ben Yagoda, Bill Deresiweicz or Mario Vargas Llosa. Even more so knowing that scientific writing in the natural sciences has become, in the light of climate and environmental pressures, a new form of marketing campaign.

Long story short: I like reading and writing in English— and look forward to exploring new venues to improve such skills. What I know is that both reading and writing take a lot of work. In particular, reading is a very demanding activity. I don't think someone can make the most out of reading unless they develop the skill of finding patterns between the lines.

I know some people who consume podcasts, read books from cover to cover, and are happy to recite to you, in vivid detail, what they have learned. My case is often the opposite: I don't finish the book because I find a tangent so early in the reading that I lose track of the rest of the story or the argument. In reading the 2015 essay Notes on the Death of Culture by Vargas-Llosa, for example, I could not help taking a leap towards the work of George Steiner who is heavily cited in the book. Then, after briefly skimming Steiner's The Lessons of the Masters, I leaped on to re-read essays by Bill Deresiewicz on education in search of patterns both in content and style. "Reading [just] one book," wrote Diane Duane, "is like eating one potato chip". But my habit of riffling through titles without actually delving in the material —an activity one can grow deft at in graduate school— suggests that I don't get any of the chips, or rather, that I wasn't even looking for chips in the first place. Then comes the question on whether the 'reader' label I like to carry on like a canvas backpack is actually accurate or an overstatement. Being a good reader, I imagined, consisted in making it to the last page and being able to recall —to recite— all the major points. This definition, though arguably flawed and outdated, lets me arrive at the same conclusion: I am not much of a reader but a networker, a researcher.

Part of such 'research activities' (read: perusing nonfiction and avoiding fiction) are founded in my own sheer pragmatism: I often read to find something I, in advance, desire to learn. This of course isn't the right mindset to read fiction because you never know what you're going to find. So what happens is that I read a book on English style (like Ben Yagoda's The Sound on the Page) and he shows examples of style, or voice, across a number of genres. Then that's when I want to read fiction - but the pragmatic focus never faded away: I am now looking for different styles, structure, syntax, grammar. And that may well be a good excuse to bring myself closer to a vast world of books I didn't even consider.