A recent Brain Pickings post on Gertrude Stein’s posthumously published children’s book, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, has sent me on a journey to nonsense. Or rather, it has revived a kind of determination to spread an enthusiasm for reading with your guts and heart, not just your head.
In a press release for her first children’s book, Stein wrote something that could just as easily be applied to her grownup fiction:
Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words.
Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you
have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.
While it’s easier to calibrate your expectations of deliberately nonsensical writing, e.g. Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, reading for purposes other than understanding gets tricky in other areas. At least, in my mind, readers often resist writing that doesn't immediately make sense, that proceeds with a certain tension-filled ambiguity.
Last week, I came across an htmlgiant post that might be useful in terms of articulating a purpose for reading other than understanding. Before recommending five works of theory (touching upon such topics as "interassemblage haecceities"), Christopher Higgs writes:
I think it’s quite productive to read theory as if it were poetry or fiction,
which is to say as if its primary function was to affect rather than educate...
I read theory and fiction and poetry to experience, to consider, to become
other, to shift, to mutate, to change. I most certainly do not read those things
to understand them.
I was reminded of the first time I encountered Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan in an undergraduate literary theory course (which yes, meant that I was reading in order to understand what was being written). Part of my absolute joy at reading theory was the complete tizzy my head went through in its attempts to grasp or even contain the expanse of the ideas written down. The joy, for me, was the experience of reading it. At times I barely thought my feet were touching ground. In the end, I believe I understood less. And this is wonderful.
My point is not to bash understanding or encourage everyone to smoke pot and listen to whale sounds. I mean, go ahead and all, but what I’d like to promote here is an experience of reading that doesn’t insist on pinning something down. Do not be afraid. Try not to read with the goal of saying “Aha! I get it!” when you’re finished. Allow for uncertainty, for ambiguity, for mystery that resonates beyond the page. Let your senses experience a truth your mind can't get a handle on.
This is also not to encourage laziness; quite the contrary. This is to encourage a kind of pleasure in the sound of words and the power of words to bring you to an unrecognized place.
Don't bother about the commas.