“The story is truly finished—and meaning is made—not when the author adds the last period, but when the reader enters the story and fills that little ambiguous space, completing the circuit, letting the power flow through.” -Celeste Ng, “On Leaving Space for the Reader”
For a little while now I’ve been wondering what I’m doing when I’m “reading.”
The question finally stood up and waved its arms for attention a few weeks ago. One of my classes explores the stories people tell in science and technology, and a scientist friend came along for our discussion of Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have A Narrative. Understated spoilers: not my favorite book. Olson has picked up some useful tools, he has some good ideas, but he’s like the guy entranced by a hammer who runs around telling you that everything is a nail, and by the way, he’s the master at nails, because look at this: a hammer.
If that isn’t a proverbial little legend, dibs. But I’m pretty sure I’m stealing from somewhere.
After our discussion, my friend said: “Interesting. When I read Houston back in grad school, I thought it was 80% filler, but I just tried to walk around that for the 20% I could use. But you all are talking about everything.” I felt a little “oh no,” somewhere in the back of my head. My professor joined our conversation, offering the term “extractive reading:” reading for what you need. Reading for what you can take away. In her own graduate studies, that became one of my professor’s primary ways of reading, because there was so much to read. My friend agreed: when she read a research paper, she was often looking for the one idea she could use. At that point, I recognized my little quiet “oh no:” it was the realization that I’ve been reading “extractively,” too. I’ve been reading like a mine, like equipment gnawing through earth for ore. Or worse: I’ve reading for the tidbit that backs up my point of view, or for the funny soundbite I can share, or for an uproar quote, or to say, “Oh yeah, I read that.”
“You all are talking about everything.” I’m not sure if I lived up to that, but I want to.
Reading for what you need might not be the worst thing in the world. Sometimes, I’m sure, it’s important. But I remember reading like falling into a lake, reading like falling asleep, reading like waking up. If writers leave a little ambiguous space, I want to be the kind of reader who sometimes goes into that space, who stays there, neck deep in the water or the grass, listening until I realize the silence isn’t silent. Until I hear a beetle buzzing in the air I called empty, or feel subtle currents I’d missed. I don’t want what I’m looking for: I don’t want to take anything. I want to be there with what is, and what was, and what’s becoming. I want to be there, letting the power flow through.