Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I learned to close-read at Hogwarts

We all need a book from the Restricted Section now and then.
Reading when you are young is different from later reading. Any one book can have a much greater impact on you, simply because you have read fewer books. And at that age, you tend to read far more obsessively: favorite books call you back repeatedly, just as much as favorite movies. (How many times did I watch the Star Wars trilogy before the age of 10? How many times did my sister watch The Parent Trap?) Heaven only knows why we are so easily transfixed by the same endlessly looping stories as children, at precisely the age when common wisdom would claim that we are most easily bored. But we return again and again to the same books as children in a way that we rarely do later in life.

For me, as for many people my age—because three years older or three years younger is too much—the Harry Potter books were the primary object of feverishly recurrent reading and rereading. I read the first three books at least twenty times each, and volumes four and five at least ten. How did I have so much time? I don't know; but neither am I sure how I could log triple-digit hours of game play on a single Pokémon cartridge. I do know that for entire school years I would sit down for breakfast before going to school, take a Harry Potter book from the shelf, and start reading wherever it fell open at random—like a latter-day sortes vergilianae. There was a quasi-religious aspect to this practice, which was ordered a bit like matins: pray for breakfast (a more pious time in my life); eat breakfast while reading about Nearly Headless Nick's death-day party; clean off plate with book still in hand; here endeth the reading. Depart in peace.


Theorists of reading practices distinguish between intensive and extensive reading. Extensive reading involves reading lots of things, often with light attention; intensive reading, however, involves reading the same texts very closely, over and over again. In the Middle Ages, an environment with few books, most reading was intensive, and the object of the most intensive reading was, of course, the Bible. Dedicating a poem to memory or learning lines for a play are also necessarily forms of intensive reading. Nowadays, of course, the majority of us are extensive readers most of the time. We scan websites, skim magazine articles, and even when we read at a slower pace, we rarely return to what we're reading for a second tilt at the windmill. When we do, it is because we have loved something so much that it deserves special attention—the exception rather than the rule.

When you read intensively, you notice things on subsequent visits that you could never have known the first time. You change your opinion about matters, like whether Mrs. Bennet is completely ridiculous or simply doting; you see the method in things, so that the innocuous conversation between Miss Arbuthnot and the Colonel suddenly takes on huge importance. Rereading trains your eye for detail and teaches you to love not just suspense but technique. As my tenth-grade English teacher once told my class, "Reading a book for the first time is like a first date. You might like it, you might not, but you can't say you really know the book." Intensive reading is what English teachers and professors do, or at least how they're trained and what they teach. The goal is to show people how to read more closely.

The Harry Potter books were the first time I read a narrative in this way, and it was long before the sophistications of English class entered my life. But before I ever could have realized it, the process of reading them over and over again was teaching me the rudiments of how to read more attentively—and even, perhaps, maturely. What color is the umbrella that Hagrid carries? Why does Rowling capitalize the word "Black" when introducing Dean Thomas? How many points does Gryffindor have at the end of the first book—and, given the intervening events, does that total necessarily imply that it is possible for a house to have negative points?

The books train a certain kind of young mind into a capacity for a monomaniacal attention to trivia. Trivia is trivia, to be sure. But the kind of eye that learns to scrutinize the history of Aunt Marge's bulldogs, or parse the implicit internal consistency of legislation governing Time-Turners, is the kind of eye that is well-prepared to evaluate the documentary evidence surrounding the Battle of Yorktown, the publication of Bleak House, or Constitutional law. It is the kind of mind that can devote years to untangling Proust or Joyce, and can remember the crucial detail—the social entanglements of the Verdurin salon, or the constellation of words that Leopold Bloom attaches to his daughter—that descries a work. How many of my generation of literary scholars will turn out to have had the Harry Potter books as their first literary training ground?

This is not unique to the Potter books, of course. The same kind of attention has been paid to minor characters in The Lord of the Rings, or the Star Trek universe, or engineering specifics of the workings of the Serenity—fandoms, if you will. But the difference between the Tolkienite writing a Wikipedia article on Yavanna Kementári and the classical historian publishing a prosopographical entry differentiating the several Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatuses in Roman history is smaller than most of the classical historians would like to admit. Of course, Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatus was a real person; and In Search of Lost Time, in my humble opinion, may see a bit deeper into the complexities of the mortal psyche than Doctor Who. But the cathectic pattern, if not the entire psychology, of the expert humanist is probably not so different from the average Comic-Con attendant. This raises the question of why so many Comic-Con types think of themselves as humanities-averse, despite the fact that so many of them are basically doing prodigiously extensive amateur lit crit, exegesis, historiography, prosopography, anthologizing, and canon-formation—not to mention extensive storytelling, drawing, and costume design. Perhaps the entire split amounts to nothing more than whether you were also into Magic: the Gathering in high school.

And that is why the Harry Potter books seem to be a special case: because, for just my sliver of a generation—those of us between, say, age 4 and 11 in 1997—the novels slipped in under the threshold of the fantasy-averse and unified an entire generation, including those of us who will someday be teachers of literature. As importantly, they created a universe where not only was it the case that reading saved the day, but research was often a heroic act—Hermione racing back from the library with an elusive footnote in hand explaining the myth of the basilisk; Harry sneaking into the restricted section for the privilege of knowledge. Rowling's antiquity-soaked world could give a Latin dictionary the mystique of a grimoire, and also a sense that deep cultural knowledge—an acquaintance with the roots of Cerberus or selkies in legend—could unlock the hidden richnesses of life. The series made humanistic research, and humanistic thinking, look and feel cool. Excuse me—I don't mean "made." I mean "makes."

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post, Spencer! It is nice to read praise of intensive reading in this age of extensive reading that can leave us without a real grasp on much of what we read at all. This kind of "reading" can be applied to more than just books; revisiting the Prado to "re-read" Las Meninas was such a powerful experience for me a few months ago that I almost broke down and cried in the middle of the museum; even though a facsimile has hung over my bed throughout my childhood, spending time with this painting still revealed to me many of its intricacies and brought me closer to "knowing" it. I think we all need to remember to value deep knowledge, not just broad knowledge.

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