I was asked to contribute to this column in late 2019, and like many writers and editors who’ve contributed before me, my first thought was about how little I’ve read recently, and how I’d get around that problem. I’m pretty sure I only finished one book published in 2019 during that year, and that was only out of necessity—my postgraduate study is partly on the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner, and his new book The Topeka School came out. (I liked it.)
Feeling inadequate about reading is, of course, not actually about volume. I am reading all the time, including this line as I typed it and my phone as I checked it while making edits. It’s much more to do with what we internally consider quote-unquote reading to be. All three of my jobs are basically close reading jobs—one as an editor at a book publisher, one as a volunteer editor of a literary magazine, and one as a PhD candidate in a writing faculty—but I internalise all this as not-really-doing-enough-reading because I very rarely have time to read books for pleasure. To that end, this little essay is about what reading is—not about books.
Sometimes, I come home from reading at work for my job and then read emails or edit essays for my unpaid job. Sometimes I simply cannot stomach any more text, and watch a great many Bon Appétit videos. But even then, doing a watching-activity instead of a reading-activity, I’m way more invested in the characters and their individual and interlocking narratives than any recipe tips. It’s well-known that watching and reading are not the same thing; the attention required is very different. Active, passive. Linearity, hypertext, clickbait. Paper over screen. Original text over adapted visual smorgasbord. I absolutely cannot watch epic blockbusters because of how much they over-stimulate me, but that’s another essay.
When I need to veg out, I play some FIFA on my housemate’s Switch. I spend an inordinate amount of time tinkering with the lineup for my next game to make sure everybody in my squad’s morale and stamina is good. Dejan Lovren has been requesting more game-time, so even though he’s very slow, if at all possible, I’ll accommodate him. When people ask me why I like football at all, I ask them if they’d be more invested if every time they saw a certain shirt number and colour they could recall that person’s whole life story: their fraught upbringing in Senegal and what it means to the locals when they go back to Bambali; or their thirteen months out with the torn ACL and the sound in the stadium when they finally make it back onto the field; or the tribute to their father that they wrote on their shin pads as a private motivation. In other words, when I watch sport, I am watching a dance of complex and conflicting personal narratives as they intersect against the fixed tension of the clock. (Cricket, tennis and many others, all are endlessly joyous to me for the same reason. I’d like to plug Meg Lanning. I’d like to plug Nick Kyrgios.)
When I play FIFA Career Mode I’d much rather score with Marco Reus, who’s been in great (virtual) form recently and whose (real-life) struggles with injury I empathise—than with Jordan Henderson, who is playing CDM and so shouldn’t have progressed that far up the field, but due to the algorithm is suddenly on the edge of the box with the ball at his feet. I daren’t shoot, it doesn’t feel right. I turn back and pass it around to execute the narrative I want to see enacted. I am reading angles and gaps, required weight of pass, preferred foot of next recipient.
Last year, I started practicing reading the back of my eyelids. I’d lie on the bed and try my best to think about nothing. It’s sort of meditation, sort of just sore eyes. I saw my optometrist recently to get a prescription for contacts (for [real-life] sports) and she said my eyesight hasn’t worsened in the last two years, but that if I’m reading as much as I am, I need to look away from the screen more, rest my eyes more, get some eye drops.
I spend a lot of time checking the kerning and tracking on certain lines in the text are as even as possible. Occupational hazard: I can’t help but notice typos in restaurant menus. I was genuinely surprised how many widows there are in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. (Maybe intentional? It’s nearly poetry? Max Porter seems meticulous and even worked in publishing? But they mostly just look like oversights!) An indie Australian novel I won’t name had truly horrid typesetting—genuinely shocking—and was not very good either.
When I edit, I rejig clauses to try and effect the most direct, active voice possible, even if my academic writing often buries important points in disgustingly long subordinate clauses. I might leave a comment suggesting a rephrase for clarity. I might say there’s an opportunity here to draw a little more out. I might say, this is perfect! I might try to find a way to turn how I feel when I read a beautiful book into an objective argument so as to satisfy my supervisor.
I’m reading the index to a book about butchery (first entry: abattoir) to check all the indentations on the multi-line entries are correct.
I’m reading text messages, which, in certain relations, I pore over as carefully as a poem (my most used app in my phone is iMessage, even more than Insta or Google Maps).
I’m reading along the curb of the road, every morning before work, thinking about whether that space does or does not constitute a sufficiently large and legal parking spot, or whether it might have been a parking space if the car in front had parked slightly closer to the driveway in front.
I’m reading car bodies to profile whether the driver close behind me is unduly aggressive. If it’s a Hilux or a Commodore or a Falcon (this is a form of stereotyping and, likely, of class profiling, but I’m defending it because a 25-year-old gym bro in a Falcon totalled my parked car while hooning up my street) I’m likely to simply get out of their way to let them speed freely, and not tail-gate me, because I just want to relax when I drive. White guys in VW Golfs and Polos are overrepresented as aggressive drivers. ‘Compensating for something’ seems too easy, but a friend pointed out that, stereotypically, these drivers are private school graduates whose parents paid for their first cars (see Betoota Advocate ‘Red P-Plates On VW Golf A Fairly Good Indication Dad’s Making Bank’), so entitlement comes fitted standard.
Listening & literacy
What is the difference between close reading, and looking at things closely? Is reading about the way we synthesise language and arrange it into narratives? Or is it primarily visual, and the way we process it is secondary? The lines are blurred for me, but I love looking closely, I love language, and I love narrative.
The epigraph to Pam Brown’s Home by Dark is a quote from Kevin Davies that always got me: ‘Just keep on staring into that English-language night sky.’
I’m distinctly better at visual than auditory comprehension; if you’re telling me something important, I’ll be transcribing it into text in my head so I can synthesise it and respond. If I’m looking away from you while you’re talking, it’s not because I’m not listening, it’s because I am listening, and trying to avoid visual stimuli that’ll distract.
I encourage you to be liberal with the way you edit interview transcriptions, because punctuation is endlessly versatile. Was that a comma, or a dash? When did that thought stop and the next one start? One colleague of mine never finishes a sentence, especially in meetings—everything is dashed into the next thing—so you can never make a counterpoint—or suggest a qualification—by the time they’ve finished—it’s summed up and tied with a bow—it’s an everyday skill for a politician—one I can’t help but admire—listening to RN Drive on the way home—doesn’t that sound great?
Literacy is a skillset like any other, with its own meta-narratives and complex politics. You can help things make sense or you can purposely confound, like the famous Orwell essay on politics and the English language. (He’s deeply relevant in some ways, and ogre-ish in others, but I still think about how good prose should be like a window pane.) You can use language to flex class, race, and age, like shaming people for poor punctuation or over-using ‘like’. I’m despicably deferential and my diction is just delightful when I’m around rich white boomers (the parents of the kids who bullied me at school but still took me to their lakehouses). You can glean a lot of someone’s wants and needs from the way they talk to waitstaff. (Some people want to be made to feel important; I very much want to please; we all want to be loved and respected.)
I’m reading the way I’ve been feeling these last few months, looking for patterns and shifts.
I’m reading into the way I rationalise and narrativise those feelings, and the way I let the feelings inflect the way my body moves, and the way I let shame govern my ability to write.
I’m reading the way reading can be a metaphor for all kinds of things which aren’t really reading; how thinking about something (particularly a conceptual verb) can subordinate everything else into categories of that thing—that way of doing and being, until we aren’t sure when we’re reading, or when we’re using reading as a euphemism for all kinds of thinking, feeling, writing, listening, watching, being.
I read all the time, and I love it, so I don’t mind.
I’d like to plug the poetry of Astrid Lorange and Evelyn Araluen and Elena Gomez.
I’d like to say that the best PhD thesis in Australia to be finished this year is Jasper Ludewig’s, look out for it.
I’d like to say that essays over 4,000 words are always worth it—are my favourites to work on—because spaces to watch writers think about their thinking are beautiful.
And I’d like to say that we should all keep going to readings, to book launches, festivals, we should keep filling those reading-adjacent rooms full of bodies reading.
I wrote the above line pre-pandemic, and look forward to holding it true again soon. For now, I’m reading the graph curves quickly and the messages of friends lovingly. Perhaps soon, a new reading room: a silent Zoom of readers.
Justin Wolfers is a Sydney-based editor, writer and researcher. He is co-editor of The Lifted Brow, and works as an editor at Murdoch Books (Allen & Unwin). His work has been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Fireflies, The Lifted Brow, Cordite, The Australian, and others. He’s a PhD candidate in Writing & Society at Western Sydney University. He grew up on Guringai land and lives and works on Gadigal land.