The art of reading deeply

(More in posts that are not about New Orleans.)

As you all know, this year I committed to K.T. Bradford’s challenge to read only books by women. It’s been a worthwhile experience already, even a third of the way through the year. And it hasn’t been much of a challenge to stay the course, although if you remember my rules, there are some loopholes built into my approach, which I’ve made use of a time or two. For the most part, however, I haven’t even considered or been tempted to pick up a book by a man–which will make 2016 fascinating in its own right.

What’s been especially awesome is the level of support I’ve received from my bibliophilic friends, including recommendations, loans, and offers to read along and discuss different books.

I’ll get to those recommendations eventually, but recently I’ve noticed an unusual trend in my reading–rather than ranging far and wide, as I usually do, I’ve been delving deep into the works of particular writers. Octavia Butler. Ursula K. LeGuin. Shirley Jackson. Margaret Atwood. Sarah Waters.*

It’s almost like seminar style reading. I’m having revelations, not about particular books, but about these women and their concerns, their interests. I’ve been thinking about Jackson’s brand of horror (really terror) and the difference between LeGuin and Butler’s approaches to science fiction and Atwood’s socio-political-ecological stews. There’s something incredibly fulfilling about this level of study–it makes me sad that we don’t get the opportunity to do this much academically, not for women writers and not for writers in genre either. They might pop up in a survey course or a themed seminar but the single-author classes seem to be for Faulkner, Shakespeare, Dickens, and other pillars of the canon. If you see a woman, it’s Virginia Woolf* or Jane Austen.

This isn’t an inherently bad thing, of course, because you can learn a tremendous amount from reading six or seven novels by Faulkner in a semester. (Although it wreaks havoc on your prose style, believe you me.) But I’m also learning a great deal from reading a lot by these particular women in tandem, too. When you read deeply, you see patterns and recurring questions. It helps you appreciate what these authors meant and still mean in the literary world. One book might do that, it’s true, but six definitely will. And as a young(er) woman writer, I feel connected, maybe for the first time, to a tradition of sorts. A foundation.

It’s odd–it’s not that I hadn’t read them before–you get a story or a novel in here or there. But now there’s time to spend on them. No moving on to the next thing until I want to. No one to push me back to the masculine mainstream of any kind of fiction. Just diving deep.

Who would you read deeply, if given the chance?

*Yes, part of the point of this particular project is to read more women writers I don’t know. That will happen, too, no worries.

**I’m sure I’ll pick up Woolf later in the year. I love Woolf.


2 thoughts on “The art of reading deeply

  1. That book you are borrowing from me is by a woman.
    I can’t think of anybody in particular at the moment I’d like to read all at once, but I guess poetry books sort of work this way by default. If you read a poet’s whole book, you get a pretty solid grasp of what they’re up to.

    • I haven’t forgotten about it, I promise.

      But yes, that does seem true of poetry. You’re much more likely to come across whole collected works, too.

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