Reading Into It

I recently read an article that urges booksellers to remember that they love reading. Anyone who spends all their time around books can begin to find them dreary, and the task of reading book after book can become tedious—but then fiction offers tremendously intimate rewards. Regardless of genre, the fiction I most enjoy is laced with love; images come to life because the writer fills their words with vulnerability.

But I am neither a bookseller nor an editor of fiction. I read and copyedit academic writing. To put it politely, there is a limited supply of love and vulnerability in research. As I’ve said in my previous post, I mind poor grammar less than poor imagination. So how can I make my work less about grammar checks and more about imagination, love, vulnerability, and all the rest?

If I had to illustrate the process of copyediting, I’d imagine that it takes place in the gaps between words and their reading. Little house-elves run about with tools and cleaning supplies, tightening a nut here, loosening a bolt there, and then scrubbing until the words gleam. As editors, we have the opportunity to occupy this impermanent space; we slip quickly in and out and, if we’re successful, leave the text truer to itself.

Sometimes the text nearly implodes—and not for the most obvious reasons. Quite often, we make the mistake of assuming that we know how words operate, and when they disobey, we disengage. Perhaps we simply forget that a text is a unique, living thing, and that it grows and changes even as we study it. After all, Derrida posits that reading is writing; in other words, you write or (de)construct the text as you read it. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it:

The very act of reading creates a new and different text; that is to say, reading writes.

Where does the work of editing fit into this idea of reading? In other words, how does an editor’s reading of a text write it? The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that an edited text is always the product of a shared vision: that of the author and the editor. The published version then contains a kind of subatomic tension between the author’s writing, the editor’s “writing”, and the reader’s “writing”. (My apologies to the editor of this article—she is probably fighting the urge to release some of that subatomic tension right now.)

Anne Orford, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, describes her reading of Derrida thus:

While many theoretical masters offer us a sociological description, a grand vision of where we have been, a history of the present or a plan for the future, Derrida offered me a lesson in how to be surprised by the world.

Interestingly, the idea of viewing the world—dare I say—deconstructively is one that predates Derrida by a couple of centuries. In 1753, Samuel Johnson wrote:

A ready man is made by conversation. He that buries himself among his manuscripts besprent, as Pope expresses it, with learned dust, and wears out his days and nights in perpetual research and solitary meditation, is too apt to lose in his elocution what he adds to his wisdom, and when he comes into the world, to appear overloaded with his own notions, like a man armed with weapons which he cannot wield. He has no facility of inculcating his speculations, of adapting himself to the various degrees of intellect which the accidents of conversation will present; but will talk to most unintelligibly, and to all unpleasantly.

Paradoxical though it may seem, I find the idea that reading can show us ways to feel “surprised by the world” to be somewhat linked to the ability to adapt to the “accidents of conversation”. As the people who live between the words, whose reward is not the authorship of a fine piece of research (or fiction) but simply the feeling of having gotten through another piece of writing, editors are bound to find the written word dull, lifeless, and entirely un-accidental. Here is our challenge, and my present speculation: perhaps reading—as reading, but also as writing—can breathe life back into words. In Feel Free, Zadie Smith reflects on the work of twentieth-century Jewish thinker Martin Buber, discussing the possibility of meeting the familiar as if it were new. And so meeting words in a situation where they aren’t expected is something like meeting your old schoolteacher at the grocery store: bereft of a textbook and a piece of chalk, they look quite “radically other”, finally existing as themselves, not as a built-in feature of your classroom. (Somehow, I’m not quite sure I can recover from the accidents in that conversation.)

So far, I’ve talked about two different aspects of reading: reading a specific text and reading other texts. Editing, I think, requires both. The first, reading–writing and meeting the text, is possibly the harder of the two; it requires us to rediscover semantics so we can get a sense of the author’s intention, and simultaneously keep an eye out for things like the house style and convention. The second aspect of reading, although simpler by far, is the one that eludes us. Reading for sheer love, as the bookseller article mentions, is something we need to remember. Sometimes, it’s the freshness of a new novel; sometimes it’s the familiarity of an old favourite. At other times, it isn’t even fiction—it can be an essay or newspaper editorial that comes at us with a full body and clear intent.

Finally, there is the possibility of disengaging altogether. Perhaps it is necessary to pause and look around, to go for a walk, to people-watch at the bus stop or the supermarket, so that life can seep into text, the corollary of reading something wholesome and finding that the world begins to take on the hues of its writing. Everyday experiences become pauses for reflection; the words we struggle with return, infused with new vigour.

And so, it is essential that editors read, but also that we don’t read.