The art of reading

One of my roles in the day-job is to act as client representative for a large building and refurbishment project. I recently asked the architect about the feasibility of removing a structural column to allow for improved circulation in the building.

Now, you may say that I got what I deserved. I may be the son of an architect, but I’m no structural engineer, and I had to study both the words and the plans for some time to make sure that I understood what on earth he was saying. Here is his interim reply:

The column to be removed (Grid R/5) is offset from grid 5 (& upper roof beam) by 170mm and does not support the upper roof. The lower roof is supported on RSC trimmers, 450mm offset from grid 5, these are trimmed onto another RSC connected to the offset face of the central column. Also the concrete cladding panels are face fixed to the column. The column would need to be cut below the trimming steel with the new beam downstanding below. The retained stub columns is loaded eccentrically; so would apply torsion to the new beam and the new beam will be laterally unrestrained as not fixed to the deck along the top flange. The beam is likely to be a very heavy section spanning 7.2m from grids P to T. The external column at grid T is also offset 170mm, so connection would be straightforward. The inner column at grid P is on grid; so the new beam will be beyond the supporting column; requiring a second trimming beam on grid P spanning 3.6m from grids 5 to 6.

I don’t actually need all that detail – I only need the bit of information that is still to come, saying that it would extend the works by X days and cost Y thousand pounds. Andy, the architect, knows that perfectly well.

But I’ve become fascinated by this stuff, by the intricate details of the design and construction process, by the extraordinary breadth and depth of Andy’s technical knowledge (never mind his artistic flair or his understanding of planning and contract law). So when he sends me something like the above, I reckon it’s the least I can do to read it carefully and to try to understand.

One of the saddest things about the 21st century is that we seem to have drifted from the celebritocracy of the late ‘90s – hardly an impressive socio-cultural model in its own right – into what Chris Patten has described as a lobotomocracy. The prevalence of reality TV and the adulation showered on its “stars” (sic) – coupled with the linguistic shorthand and dumbing-down (there, I said it) of txt-speak – have helped to create a culture of soundbites and instant gratification, in which the soundbite is not only the headline, it is the entirety of what is said.

Attention spans are dwindling, and this scares me. I am reasonably sure that the laws of physics are not going to change in the next fifty years, and that fifty years hence we will still need architects like Andy, who have the patience, depth of knowledge and attention to detail to make sure that buildings don’t fall over. How are we preparing our children for this?

It’s a truism, no doubt backed up by research, that the child who reads will have a longer attention span than the child who plays computer games. I would respectfully submit that the adult who reads – books, I mean, not lads’ mags or tabloids – is likely to have a longer attention span than the adult who is constantly fiddling with his Blackberry. Take a look at some of the recent research on multi-tasking if you don’t believe me.

And so it is to the written word that I, for one, will turn to hone my power of concentration and to nurture my mental acumen and agility.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not talking about the kind of book which Paul House recently described on this site as “something to be enjoyed quickly and with as little thought as possible, to be later abandoned in a hotel room or in the airport lounge.” No, I’m talking about the kind where the writing stops you in your tracks, makes you re-read it, gets under your skin.

Because, you see, I’m horribly afraid that we are losing the art of reading. We skim, we speed-read, and are proud of it. But not all reading is about taking in information. Sometimes it is about allowing an atmosphere to grow up around us or allowing characters to appear in our mind.

Above all it is, or it should be, about paying attention to what the author has to say.

That has pretty big implications. It isn’t just about following the complexities of a storyline or trusting the author’s judgement when they choose to put in a page or two of back-story. It implies concentration and focus – perhaps choosing a time and place to read where one won’t be open to distraction.

It implies shutting one’s big mouth and putting one’s own opinions on hold – reading on the author’s terms – having the patience and open-mindedness to listen to what the author is actually saying, rather than what one wishes or expects to hear. Reading isn’t an interactive activity; it’s one-way.

More than that, though, it implies the reader relinquishing control, being willing to go where the author chooses to lead them, being willing to read at the rhythm and pace set by the author.

I adduce an example from Dorothy L. Sayers’s masterpiece, The Nine Tailors. It is a detective story, regarded by many (myself included) as Sayers’s finest novel, but criticised by some for containing too much description.

(Let us be quite clear here: to define The Nine Tailors merely as a detective story, and to criticise it as overly descriptive, is akin to saying that Michelangelo did a paint job on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – and then to complain that he took so long about it, when Big Al from the Yellow Pages could have put on four coats of emulsion in under a week, all work fully guaranteed, for a fraction of the price.)

In the first chapter, Sayers breaks off her narrative to offer the reader a lesson in campanology. In the course of a page-long paragraph, two isolated and, on the face of it, redundant words give a clue to what the author is about. “[B]y the English method of ringing with rope and wheel,” she writes, “each several bell gives forth her fullest and her noblest note.”

Now, I have encountered creative writing “experts” (sic) who would tear that sentence up, if not cut the whole paragraph out. You’re not here to give your reader a lesson in bell-ringing! they would cry. Stick to the plot! Cut out anything and everything that doesn’t drive the plot forwards! If by any chance the paragraph were to survive, the red pen would be brought out for the word ‘several’. And for that second ‘her’.

Yet these two words, despite all their redundancy and all their repetitiveness, bring to the text all the methodical magnificence of change-ringing, its rhythm and solemnity, its timeless majesty. And the bells in turn lend those qualities both to the narrative and to its richly atmospheric setting.

The whole paragraph, indeed, is a deliberate device to slow the reader down – for Sayers is here placing her cosmopolitan detective (whose previous appearance was in the London-based, faster-paced and more corpse-strewn Murder Must Advertise) into a place as slow and isolated as any in England.

Re-reading The Nine Tailors last week, rejoicing in its richness, I made myself a promise. When I pick up a book – whether for the first time or the fortieth, whether for temporary escapism or for intellectual stimulation or just for the fun of it – I enter into a form of agreement with the author. I will do my utmost to focus on what the author is saying, to read every word, to bear in mind that every one of those one hundred thousand (or however many) words, every one, was chosen by the author to help convey what he or she had to say. I can suspend or terminate the agreement at any time – I can put the book down to be read at another time, or even throw it away – but for as long as I am reading it, I will give the author my attention.

Who knows? – I may even encounter a gem like this.

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo – tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom – tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo – tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom – tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom – every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells – little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.

In the words of Janet Hitchman: Very nice, you might say, but what has all this to do with solving the mystery of a faceless and handless corpse in a grave belonging to someone else?

Well, that’s just it. It has everything to do with it.

Ben describes himself as an inveterate reader with no pretensions to writing. Visit his blog at; read his review of The Nine Tailors on Amazon or Goodreads.

This entry was posted in Power of Language and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The art of reading

  1. neil ridley says:

    oh Ben what is the word culture being abused for, you were doing so well then I stopped.
    I started again and for a refernce to the Guardian – this is not good enough.
    Much better on the methodical magnificence, I like that.

    It implies shutting one’s big mouth and putting one’s own opinions on hold – reading on the author’s terms – having the patience and open-mindedness to listen to what the author is actually saying, rather than what one wishes or expects to hear. Reading isn’t an interactive activity; it’s one-way.

    I wonder Ben perhaps you can use that in my next job application reference, sums me up to a tea or is it tee?

    • Diiarts says:

      I’ll stand by “culture” if you’re talking about “a culture of soundbites and instant gratification”; remember that a culture can also mean something unpleasant growing in a petri dish!

  2. Behira says:

    Ben – this is a great post. I think you can apply this to listening to music too; absolute submission i.e. ‘give yourself to the moment’ it can be something very profound – I think Pauline Oliveros struck something when she theorised about ‘deep listening’ – perhaps there is a ‘deep reading’ too…

  3. Gwen says:

    Concentration and focus – yes indeed. And I agree with Behira about music too. Thank you, Ben, for advocating thoughtful reading; having been prevented from speed-reading by a classical education (where ends of words and sentences matter as much as beginnings) I’m pleased to be reassured that care and attention are important too.

  4. Ben Bennetts says:

    Gwen, thank you for your comments. I had never seen that aspect of a classical education in those terms; my own classical education was cruelly curtailed by a combination of ineptitude and idleness on my part (for which my teachers were in no way responsible).

    I had a most remarkable experience as a result of offline discussion with Behira, who mentioned a recording of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land; I was able to get hold of same, and realised on first listening (a) just how much one misses when reading from the page, and (b) how much *more* one must miss when reading prose than poetry – at least with poetry one [might presumably] expect every word to be significant.

    An update on reading every word, though – it is astonishingly difficult, FAR more so than I expected – one’s brain is forever trying to finish sentences or paragraphs – and I cannot swear that I have succeeded 100% of the time, but when I have, it’s changed my experience completely. A further post will follow one of these days.

    In the meantime, I believe Andy the architect wishes me to write a post addressed to my colleagues, entitled: “What part of the phrase ‘Change control is now closed’ did you not understand?”

  5. Pingback: The trouble with #jargon… and with plain #language « The Power of Language

  6. Pingback: Portrait of the artist as a young introvert « The Power of Language

  7. Pingback: Portrait of the artist as a young introvert (from The Power of Language) « Things Unrespected

  8. Pingback: Precision tools | The Power of Language

  9. Pingback: Taking responsibility for our words | Things Unrespected

  10. Pingback: A voice that needs to be heard | Things Unrespected

  11. Mervyn Bunter says:

    That DLS passage is a masterpiece. Seemingly describing a wild beauty as the bells ring out into the night over the frozen empty fenland, its apparent prolixity emphasises the nature of the campanological marathon being undertaken. But that’s all it seems to convey.
    Only in the final chapter does Wimsey (and the reader) realise the full significance. Reading the passage again after finishing the book and every cadence of the repetitive, and above all relentless, prose takes on a whole new significance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s