Matthew Brown has a wonderful and wide-ranging essay on reading. His topic is “undisciplined reading” in particular, reading that is non-linear, fragmented, discursive. This essay matches well with a couple other essays by Lethem and Gough that I’ve enjoyed this year. They all touch on or orbit the same ideas of influence and remix and pastiche and story-telling. There’s also a bit on constrained writing towards the end.
Brown offers the perspective of an active, creative reader. In contrast with the fairly recent tradition of following an unbroken narrative in a novel, Brown writes,
A more enduring practice and one equally generative of surprise might be called collative reading. Early New England clerics would collate passages from various tomes in their libraries to compose sermons. Yet it wasn’t only the learned who would follow such nonlinear reading methods. Typology, where readers traced Old Testament foreshadowings of New Testament events, is profoundly collative, and the comparing of Hebrew Bible and Christian Gospels was at the heart of practical piety. If you think those prescribed schedules that allowed the devout to complete the bible in a continuous read over the year were the norm, think again: Cotton Mather recommended in his 1683 almanac that readers spend each day discontinuously sorting through the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Psalms. CommonplacingÄîthe collection and transcription of discrete passages from one’s reading under alphabetical or topical heads within personal miscellaniesÄîwas as important to Reformation pietists as it was to Erasmian humanists. Each of these nonlinear methods was a source of fresh insight, which would help the reader create oratory, apply scripture, or deepen faith.
Brown goes on to quote another great line (“a book was an outdated means of communication between two boxes of index cards”) before talking about the effects of mass printing… synergy!
Put less dismissively, the intellectual historian James Burke explains collative reading in terms of the equation 1+1=3. For the active reader, two disparate pieces of informationÄîfound in separate items across the shelves of a library or even across the leaves of a single reference workÄîadd up to a third, unknown category of thought. The real thrust of the Gutenberg revolution lies here rather than in movable type, mechanical reproduction, or standardized knowledge. The product of the printing press meant there were radically expanded opportunities for nonlinear access to written ideas.