By Wythe Marschall
When I read, I try to read quickly, swimming across a river of ink. It is only later that I can return and wade more slowly, learning its depths, and whirlpools and fords, oxbows and overhanging cypress branches, and look for life in the riverbed—where the juiciest ideas and quotations often wait, buried like crayfish, for some alien hand to pull them up.
Reading a history, the history of anything, I encounter all sorts of strange names—toponyms (where is Palestrina, where Palestina, where the Palladium?) and demonyms (who were the Messipians? the Nvikhs?). On first sight, these names bounce right off my eyes, jumping off the page only long enough to demonstrate their foreignness before falling back into a blur of letters that, in the contemporary American orthographic world, just don’t go together.
But each time I encounter these same strange names, they acquire a little more meaning, body, sound, importance, and (of course) familiarity. Like a ghostly, only sometimes-visible family, they become part of my own idiolectic orthography. I can now tell you, for example, about a specific man named Mastarna, who was perhaps also a man named Servius Tullius, and why you might want to know about him or them. Among other reasons, he/they purportedly invented the census—a way to read a whole society at once.
At one point, thanks to reading various fragmentary histories, I could wax vaguely poetic about 弘法大師, Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. Now all I recall is that he is familiar, part of a family of characters in the general history of Japanese religion; his name is part of a family of signs that I recognize. The words I once read about him have blended together so that they do not—cannot—conjure the man, the historical person, but only the solid impression that such a man existed.
My Kobo Daishi mosaic, I could say, is smeared with silt. I have not read of him in years. The only “fact” I now recall about him is that he liked founding little shrines all over western Japan, and I remember that because I lived it, in very small part. In one of his shrines, on a slope of Miyajima, a holy mountain in the bay of Hiroshima, I looked into the dancing heart of a flame that has burned since the master himself was alive, circa CE 806. Now it’s herds of overly friendly, goatish little deer who rule Miyajima. They’ll eat your phone out of your pocket, if you let them.
Like learning a new language, learning history consists of scanning the same symbols over and over again until they speak. And even as you hear them, they are already changing. Seeing a deer stumble unexpectedly out of the woods once made me think of Bambi, a terrifying work of art. Then I went to Miyajima. Now deer make me recall monks and forgotten facts about esoteric Buddhism. Reading books has changed how I read the world, but the world has effaced what I’ve read.
While first-reading, I make marginal notes, skip around or (in novels) re-read the pages I last read each time I pick a book back up. Reading becomes a mosaic, a challenge that simply cannot be completed to perfection, but can and should be tackled with vigor. My jumps within texts and between texts are motivated by excitement. Excitement is nonlinear.
Often, I think, we are taught in school—and proceed to teach our students—that to read is to create a list of mental bullet points which will be useful on a test. In fact, a first-reading seems to create in my mind not an analysis, not a bullet-pointed outline of any sort of cogent argument, but a feeling—a textual music of words and impressions.
But re-reading consists not only of approaching the same information again, but doing so after the brain has had time to pore over its first, imagistic impression of a text. How long does the brain need? I don’t know and don’t presume to hypothesize. Probably depends on the brain and the material being re-read. Everybody Poops is a fine book, but we probably don’t need as long to “get” it and develop its themes in our own lives (pooping, poop) as we do after reading, say, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (meaning, ethics/aesthetics, logic, whathaveyou).
When I go back to a line of thought again and again—say, the conversion of the pagan Roman Imperium, to the two competing strains of orthodox Christianity (Nicene and Arian), and to various Gnostic churches during the fourth century CE—I seem to mysteriously understand the first readings at once upon starting the second. It is as if my brain had waited to see if I would ever really need to understand why the Council of Nicaea was convened, or if I was only bluffing during my first reading.
The process of re-reading can certainly help solidify data—names, dates, themes—but it is the river in toto—the theme, the reason to have started pursuing a story in the first place—that we really want to understand, all of a sudden, when we read. The river is the reason that I re-read, not its tributaries (trivia).
And yet, of course, knowledge is never attained to some perfect degree. The river, a different river each time it’s stepped in or even gazed at, continues to move millions of gallons of water, millions of data, millions of words, forward in time. Translations are corrupted; Wikipedia is fallible—and yet we read and re-read. The river never freezes; it’s never clean. And yet, eventually, trying to pick up in Text Z where we left off from Text A, we dive back into the ink.
Wythe Marschall can be found here.