There is active reading, which this blog post was originally going to address. There is active listening, which this post subsequently drew to mind. Beyond them, there is active friendship, which this post and myself eventually realized were our source, content and result.
The Los Angeles Times this weekend had a tremendous series of essays on reading. From Susan Salter Reynolds, a staff writer:
So authors have to be particularly conscious. And so do readers. The act of reading is not all that relaxing, as every child first starting out seems to know. Virginia Woolf distinguished between moments of being and unconsciousness — her work depended on being for its spark and heat. If we become too depleted by, say, the pace of life, the bombarding of information or our disconnection from the natural world; too emptied out, too dependent on external stimuli, we run the risk of being lousy writers and lousy readers.
Writers write what they write, a path up and out of one generation’s burden, one strangulating set of cultural norms into the future, regardless. But fiction, generally speaking, has been affected by this shrinking market, this smaller pie, largely in the last decade. It is more interactive, in very subtle ways. It tries to do more with less. Plot twists can be interpreted in many ways. Reality is layered, archaeological. Perspective shifts. The narrator is hardly ever reliable. Voices labor under the weight of excessive irony. Morality is more elusive as well. The poor reader searches for truth like a needle in a haystack.
What has changed is our sense of text as fixed, not fluid, as something solid to which we can return again and again. That’s the influence of the Web, of course, where story has no end and no beginning, and readers are not passive but play a determining role. This is scary to a certain way of thinking, but I want to look in the opposite direction, to suggest that what is more compelling is how this opens up the possibilities.
Writing and reading are about engagement, about participating in a conversation, and inasmuch as technology can play a role in this interaction, it only draws more people in. How does the screen change things? This should have been the question of the last decade, but it appears it will unavoidably be the question of the next. What kind of platforms — social networks, Web, print, multimedia — are we looking at? And how do we move flexibly among them, using each according to its ability and taking from each according to our need?
“Delight at the way everything is,” William Maxwell wrote to Sylvia Townsend Warner in one of the many letters they exchanged over the 40 years of their friendship. These letters are collected in “The Element of Lavishness,” another book I’m reading this season.
But as I was reading all of them, I was listening, at Lindsay’s forceful recommendation, amid an extended conversation about slowing down and finding a creative space, to This American Life’s “Act V” broadcast. For months, the contributor watched high-security inmates prepare a production of Hamlet’s last act. He talked to them about what the work — the play and the effort — meant amid personal histories. I listened to the full hour, rare with my impatience, and was thankful. The initial stopping points in an extended conversation collected themselves.