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raban on empson: slow reading

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Jonathan Raban on, among other things, learning to read via an early encounter with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity:

The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.

Since I was brought up by latter-day Empsonians (Christ! No! Not my parents! My first instructors at university!), this is a fairly accurate precis of how I was taught to read, how I try to read, and how I try to teach my students to read. Go look at the piece – Raban has interesting things to say about the value of doing so…..

I’d like to say more about this soon. Recently had a young teacher sit in on a few of my classes – she’s French, but teaching over here, and she wanted to see how Anglo-Americans do the close reading thing in the classroom. Good intuition on her part, to sense that there’s a difference. For as much as we anglos tried to approximate, over the decades when most under the spell of the French, Gallic modes of explication du texte and the like, there’s a way that it’s never quite worked out for us, I think. I kept apologizing to her in advance, saying that I wasn’t sure she was going to find what she was looking for in my classrooms, that she was welcome to come along but that I was making no representations as to the usefulness of what she’d see, etc etc. Anyway, what I do, when I’m at my best, is something like what’s described above – just not with Empson’s idiosyncratic and precocious brilliance.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in literature

One Response

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  1. Slow reading, yes! So much to say about this, so much in that phrase that undermines the ideology of the cult of information. I shall file this away for my own twisted purposes. But I also have a little question, of a not entirely unrelated nature: is it my imagination, or did your booklist on the sidebar use to be entitled “what I’m reading” as opposed to “what I’ve been reading”?


    November 5, 2009 at 9:10 pm

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