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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Physics of Reading

I was struck by this phrase in D.T. Max's article on David Foster Wallace in the March 9 New Yorker. It's attributed to Gerald Howard, Wallace's editor at Penguin, and taken from a conversation between them about how to end Wallace's first novel "The Broom of the System." The physics of reading, Howard wrote, is “a whole set of readers’ values and tolerances and capacities and patience-levels to take into account when the gritty business of writing stuff for others to read is undertaken.” Howard advocated a satisfying ending to such a long book; Wallace ended it "I'm a man of my"

Never mind that it's not exactly physics Howard was talking about (more like biology or psychology). Whatever the science, too little attention is paid to the physical act of reading a book: turning a page is a slight jolt of awareness; ending a chapter is a big one; you can look up and about at any time and not lose your place; you can go back to the book's past or your own with ease; you can dream at will, directed by a word or a phrase or the sight outside your window.

That's the real unknown, the ecology of reading. Does it make a difference where you're reading, or what surrounds you? The hallmark of a good book is that it loses one world in favor of another. But it must be true that the lost world somehow affects the imagined one. I'm wondering if it's an inverse relationship, Jane Austen much more powerful in cities, in America, Faulkner stronger in the Yankee North, TS Eliot speaking loudly to London Mayfair, and Per Petterson, whose "Out Stealing Horses" I've just finished today, writing descriptions of the woods and rivers and lakes of Norway that were almost unbearably poignant in the suburbs of Boston, and not quite so much so here as I was finishing the book on the edge of fir trees and ocean.

Yet reading here is one of life's great pleasures, making bad books tolerable and mediocre books good. Great books, I guess, have their own existence, and the environment in which they are read makes a difference only when you come up for air.

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