On Reading to Oneself

Sneak a peek into The William H. Gass Reader, a literary feast of selections chosen by Gass himself.

William Gass

I was never much of an athlete, but I was once a member of a team. Indeed, I was its star, and we were champions. I belonged to a squad of speed readers, although I was never awarded a letter for it. Still, we took on the top teams in our territory, and read as rapidly as possible every time we were challenged to a match, hoping to finish in front of our opponents: that towheaded punk from Canton, the tomato-cheeked girl from Marietta, or that silent pair of sisters, all spectacles and squints, who looked tough as German script, and who hailed from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a region noted for its swift, mean raveners of text. We called ourselves “The Speeders.” Of course. Everybody did. There were the Sharon Speeders, the Steubenville Speeders, the Sperryville Speeders, and the Niles Nouns. The Niles Nouns never won. How could they—with that name. Nouns are always at rest.

I lost a match once to a kid from a forgettable small town, but I do remember he had green teeth. And that’s the way, I’m afraid, we always appeared to others: as creeps with squints, bad posture, unclean complexions, unscrubbed teeth, unremediably tousled hair. We never had dates, only memorized them; and when any real team went on the road to represent the school, we carried the socks, the Tootsie Rolls, the towels. My nemesis had a head of thin red hair like rust on a saw; he screwed a suggestive little finger into his large fungiform ears. He was made of rust, moss, and wax, and I had lost to him . . . lost . . . and the shame of that defeat still rushes to my face whenever I remember it. Nevertheless, although our team had no sweaters, we never earned a letter, and our exploits never made the papers, I still possess a substantial gold-colored medallion on which one sunbeaming eye seems hung above a book like a spider. Both book and eye are open—wide. I take that open, streaming eye to have been a symbol and an omen.

Our reading life has its salad days, its autumnal times. At first, of course, we do it badly, scarcely keeping our balance, toddling along behind our finger, so intent on remembering what each word is supposed to mean that the sentence is no longer a path, and we arrive at its end without having gone anywhere. Thus it is with all the things we learn, for at first they passively oppose us; they lie outside us like mist or the laws of nature; we have to issue orders to our eyes, our limbs, our understanding: lift this, shift that, thumb the space bar, lean more to one side, let up on the clutch—and take it easy, or you’ll strip the gears—and don’t forget to modify the verb, or remember what an escudo’s worth. After a while, though, we find we like standing up, riding a bike, singing Don Giovanni, making puff paste or puppy love, building model planes. Then we are indeed like the adolescent in our eager green enthusiasms: they are plentiful as leaves. Every page is a pasture, and we are let out to graze like hungry herds.

Do you remember the magic the word ‘thigh’ could work on you, showing up suddenly in the middle of a passage like a whiff of cologne in a theater? I admit it: the widening of the upper thigh remains a miracle, and, honestly, many of us once read the word ‘thigh’ as if we were exploring Africa, seeking the source of the Nile. No volume was too hefty, then, no style too verbal; the weight of a big book was more comforting than Christmas candy; though you have to be lucky, strike the right text at the right time, because the special excitement which Thomas Wolfe provides, for instance, can be felt only in the teens; and when, again, will any of us possess the energy, the patience, the inner sympathy for volcanic bombast, to read—to enjoy—Carlyle?

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Rereading—repeating—was automatic. Who needed the lessons taught by Gertrude Stein? I must have rushed through a pleasant little baseball book called The Crimson Pennant at least a dozen times, consuming a cake I had already cut into crumbs, yet that big base hit which always came when matters were most crucial was never more satisfying than on the final occasion when its hero and I ran round those bases, and shyly lifted our caps toward the crowd.

I said who needed the lessons taught by Gertrude Stein, but one of the best books for beginners remains her magical First Reader. Here are the opening lines of “Lesson One”:

A dog said that he was going to learn to read. The other dogs said he could learn to bark but he could not learn to read. They did not know that dog, if he said he was going to learn to read, he would learn to read. He might be drowned dead in water but if he said that he was going to read he was going to learn to read.

He never was drowned in water not dead drowned and he never did learn to read. Are there any children like that. One two three. Are there any children like that. Four five six. Are there any children like that. Seven eight nine are there any children like that.

There turn out to be ten, each with a dog who says he is going to learn to read, and shortly the story gets very exciting.

Back in the days of “once upon a time,” no one threatened to warm our behinds if we didn’t read another Nancy Drew by Tuesday; no sour-faced virgin browbeat us with The Blithedale Romance or held out The Cloister and the Hearth like a cold plate of “it’s good for you” food. We were on our own. I read Swinburne and the Adventures of the Shadow. I read Havelock Ellis and Tom Swift and The Idylls of the King. I read whatever came to hand, and what came to hand were a lot of naughty French novels, some by Émile Zola, detective stories, medical adventures, books about bees, biographies of Napoleon, and Thus Spake Zarathustra like a bolt of lightning. I read them all, whatever they were, with an ease that defies the goat’s digestion, and with an ease which is now so easily forgotten, just as we forget the wild wobble in the wheels, or the humiliating falls we took, when we began our life on spokes. That wind I felt, when I finally stayed upright around the block, continuously reaffirmed the basic joy of cycling. It told me not merely that I was moving, but that I was moving under my own power; just as later, when I’d passed my driver’s test, I would feel another sort of exhilaration—an intense, addictive, dangerous one—that of command: of my ability to control the energy produced by another thing or person, to direct the life contained in another creature. Yes, in those early word-drunk years, I would down a book or two a day as though they were gins. I read for adventure, excitement, to sample the exotic and the strange, for climax and resolution, to participate in otherwise unknown and forbidden passions. I forgot what it was to be under my own power, under my own steam. I knew that Shakespeare came after Sophocles, but I forgot that I went back and forth between them as though they were towns. In my passion for time, I forgot their geography. All books occupy the same space. Dante and Dickens: they cheek by jowl. And although books begin their life in the world at different times, these dates rarely determine the days they begin in yours and mine. We forget simple things like that: that we are built of books. I forgot the Coke I was drinking, the chair, the chill in the air. I was, like so many adolescents, as eager to leap from my ordinary life as the salmon are to get upstream. I sought a replacement for the world. With a surreptitious lamp lit, I stayed awake to dream. I grew reckless. I read for speed.

When you read for speed you do not read recursively, looping along the line like a sewing machine, stitching something together—say the panel of a bodice to a sleeve—linking a pair of terms, the contents of a clause, closing a seam by following the internal directions of the sentence (not when you read for speed), so that the word ‘you’ is first fastened to the word ‘read,’ and then the phrase ‘for speed’ is attached to both in order that the entire expression can be finally fronted by a grandly capitalized ‘When . . .’ (but not when you read for speed), while all of that, in turn, is gathered up to await the completion of the later segment which begins ‘you do not read recursively’ (certainly not when you read for speed). You can hear how long it seems to take—this patient process—and how confusing it can become. Nor do you linger over language, repeating (not when you read for speed) some especially pleasant little passage, in the enjoyment, perhaps, of a modest rhyme (for example, the small clause ‘when you read for speed’), or a particularly apt turn of phrase (an image, for instance, such as the one which dealt with my difficult opponent’s green teeth and thin red hair—like rust on a saw), (none of that, when you read for speed). Nor, naturally, do you move your lips as you read the word ‘read’ or the words ‘moving your lips,’ so that the poor fellow next to you in the reading room has to watch intently to see what your lips are saying: are you asking him out? for the loan of his Plutarch’s Lives? and of course the poor fellow is flummoxed to find that you are moving your lips to say ‘moving your lips.’ What can that mean? The lip-mover—Oh, such a person is low on our skill scale. We are taught to have scorn for her, for him.

On the other hand, the speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece. The speeding reader is after the kernel, the heart, the gist. Paragraphs become a country the eye flies over looking for landmarks, reference points, airports, restrooms, passages of sex. The speeding reader guts a book the way the skillful clean fish. The gills are gone, the tail, the scales, the fins; then the fillet slides away swiftly as though fed to a seal; and only the slow reader, one whom those with green teeth chew through like furious worms; only the reader whose finger falters in front of long words, who moves the lips, who dances the text, will notice the odd crowd of images—flier, skier, butcher, seal—which have gathered to comment on the aims and activities of the speeding reader, perhaps like gossips at a wedding. To the speeding reader, this jostle of images, this crazy collision of ideas—of landing strip, kernel, heart, guts, sex—will not be felt or even recognized, because these readers are after what they regard as the inner core of meaning; it is the gist they want, the heart of the matter; they want what can equally well be said in their own, other, and always fewer words; so that the gist of this passage could be said to be: readers who read rapidly read only for the most generalized and stereotyped significances. For them, meaning floats over the page like fluffy clouds. Cliché is forever in fashion. They read, as we say, synonymously, seeking sameness; and, indeed, it is all the same to them if they are said in one moment to be greedy as seals, and in another moment likened to descalers of fish. They . . . you, I . . . we get the idea.

Most writing and most reading proceeds, not in terms of specific words and phrases, although specific ones must be used, but in terms of loose general sets or gatherings of synonyms. Synonymous writing is relatively easy to read, provided one doesn’t drowse, because it lives in the approximate; it survives wide tolerances; its standards of relevance resemble those of a streetwalker, and its pleasures are of the same kind.

If any of us read, “When Jack put his hand in the till, he got his fingers burned, so that now he’s all washed up at the Bank,” we might smile at this silly collision of commonplaces, but we would also “get the drift,” the melody, the gist. The gist is that Jack was caught with his hand in the cookie jar and consequently was given a sack he can’t put his cookies in. Well, the stupid mother cut his own throat just to get his necktie red. Jack—man—wow!—I mean, he fucked up for sure—and now he’s screwed—man—like a wet place—he’s been wiped up! Punctuation dissolves into dashes; it contracts, shrinks, disappears entirely. Fred did the CRIME, got CAUGHT, now feels the PAIN. These three general ideas, like cartoon balloons, drift above the surface of the sentence, and are read as easily as Al Capp.

Precise writing becomes difficult, and slow, precisely because it requires that we read it precisely—take it all in. Most of us put words on a page the way kids throw snow at a wall. Only the general white splat matters anyhow.

When I participated in them, speed-reading matches had two halves like a game of football. The first consisted of the rapid reading itself, through which, of course, I whizzzzed, all the while making the sound of turning pages and closing covers in order to disconcert Green Teeth or the Silent Shaker Heights Sisters, who were to think I had completed my reading already. I didn’t wear glasses then, but I carried a case to every match, and always dropped it at a pertinent moment, along with a few coins.

Next we were required to answer questions about what we claimed we’d covered, and quickness, here, was again essential. The questions, however, soon disclosed their biases. They had a structure, their own gist; and it became possible, after some experience, to guess what would be asked about a text almost before it had been begun. Is it Goldilocks we’re skimming? Then what is the favorite breakfast food of the three bears? How does Goldilocks escape from the house? Why weren’t the three bears at home when Goldilocks came calling? The multiple answers we were offered also had their own tired tilt, and, like the questions, quickly gave themselves away. The favorite breakfast foods, for instance, were: (a) Quaker Oats (who, we can imagine, are paying for the prizes this year, and in this sly fashion get their name in); (b) Just Rite (written like a brand name); (c) porridge (usually misspelled); (d) sugar-coated curds and whey. No one ever wondered whether Goldilocks was suffering from sibling rivalry; why she had become a teenie trasher; or why mother bear’s bowl of porridge was cold when baby bear’s smaller bowl was still warm, and Just Rite. There were many other mysteries, but not for these quiz masters who didn’t even want to know the sexual significance of Cinderella’s slipper, or why it had to be made of glass (the better to drink from, of course). I won my championship medal by ignoring the text entirely (it was a section from Vol. II of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the part which begins “Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun . . .” but then, of course, you remember that perhaps overfamiliar passage). I skipped the questions as well, and simply encircled the gloomiest alternatives offered. Won in record time. No one’s got through Spengler with such dispatch since.

What did these matches, with their quizzes for comprehension, their love of literal learning, tell me? They told me that time was money (a speed reader’s dearest idea); they told me what the world wanted me to read when I read, eat when I ate, see when I saw. Like the glutton, I was to get everything in and out of the store in a hurry. Turnover was topmost. What the world wanted me to get was the gist, but the gist was nothing but an idea of trade—an idea so drearily uniform and emaciated that it might have modeled dresses.

We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. We must live as we read; listen as we live. Please: only the melody . . . shards of “golden oldies,” foreplays of what’s “just about out” and “all the rage,” of what’s “brand new.” We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become. It tastes like the spit in our own mouth, not the spit from the mouth of another.

This trail of clichés, sorry commonplaces, dreary stereotypes, boring slogans, loud adverts and brutal simplifications, titles, trademarks, tags, typiques, our mind leaves behind like the slime of a slug—the sameness we excrete—is democratic: one stool’s no better than another to the normally undiscerning eye and impatient bowel. ‘To be all washed up’ is not a kingly expression which ‘over the hill’ or ‘past his prime’ must serve like a slave. Each cliché is a varlet and a churl, but there’s no master. Each one refers us, with a vague wave of its hand, to the entire unkempt class. The meaning we impute to our expressions is never fixed; our thought (and there is a self-important term), our thought moves aimlessly from one form of words to another, scarcely touching any, like a bee in God’s garden. The fact is that Jack has had it. We all know that. He’s run the course. And now he’s been zapped. Why go on about it?

There are three other ways of reading that I’d like to recommend. They are slow, old-fashioned, not easy either, rarely practiced. They must be learned. Together with the speeder they describe the proper way to write as well as read, and can serve as a partial emblem for the right life.

That seems unlikely, yet they apply to all our needs, our habits: thinking, seeing, eating, drinking. We can gulp our glass of wine if we please. To get the gist. And the gist is the level of alcohol in the blood, the pixilated breath one blows into the test balloon. It makes appropriate the expression: have a belt. It makes dangerous the expression: one for the road. We can toss down a text, a time of life, a love affair, that walk in the park which gets us from here to there. We can chug-a-lug them. You have, perhaps, had to travel sometime with a person whose passion was that simple: it was getting there. You have no doubt encountered people who impatiently wait for the payoff; they urge you to come to the point; at dinner, the early courses merely delay dessert; they don’t go to the games, only bet on them; they look solely at the bottom line (that obscene phrase whose further meaning synonymous readers never notice); they are persons consumed by consequences; they want to climax without the bother of buildup or crescendo.

But we can read and walk and write and look in quite a different way. It is possible. I was saved from sameness by philosophy and Immanuel Kant, by Gertrude Stein and her seeming repetitions. You can’t speed read Process and Reality or The Critique of Pure Reason. You can’t speed read Wallace Stevens or Mallarmé. There is no gist, no simple translation, no key concept which will unlock these works; actually, there is no lock, no door, no wall, no room, no house, no world . . .

One of my favorite sentences is by Gertrude Stein. It goes: “It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident.” Our example is actually two sentences: “It looked like a garden” and “He had hurt himself by accident.” Separately, and apart, each is a perfectly ordinary, ignorable element of proletarian prose; but when they are brought together in this unusual way, they force us to consider their real, complete, and peculiar natures. The injury, we may decide, although it looked self-inflicted, planned, kept up, was actually the result of an accident. How much better we feel when we know that Gertrude Stein’s sentence has a gloss, because now we can forget it. The fellow was actually not trying to defraud his insurance company, although at first it looked like it.

Alas for the security of our comfort, her sentence is not equivalent to its synonymous reading—this consoling interpretation. It cannot be replaced by another. It cannot be translated without a complete loss of its very special effect. It was composed—this sentence—with a fine esthetic feel for “difference,” for clean and clear distinctions, for the true weight and full use of the word. If, when we say we understand something someone’s said, we mean that we can rephrase the matter, put it in other words (and we frequently do mean this), then Gertrude Stein’s critics may be right: you can’t understand such a sentence; and it has no value as a medium of exchange.

We can attempt to understand the sentence in another way. We can point out the elements and relations which, together, produce its special effect. For instance, we can call attention to the juxtaposition of an event which normally happens in a moment (an accident) with a condition which is achieved over a long period of time (a garden); or cite the contrasts between care and carelessness, the desirable and undesirable, between appearance and reality, chance and design, which the two sentences set up; and note the pivotal shift of pronouns (“It looked . . . but he had . . .”). We might furthermore comment on the particular kind of surprise the entire sentence provides, because after reading “It looked like a garden, but . . .” we certainly expect something like “but the plants had all sprung up like weeds.”

The isolation of analytical functions in the sentence is accomplished by comparing the actual sentence with its possible variations. What is the force of the phrase, “by accident”? We can find out by removing it.

It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself with a hammer.

We replace ‘hurt’ with ‘injured’ in order to feel the difference a little alliteration makes; what the new meter does; and to understand to what degree, exactly, ‘hurt’ is a more intimate and warmer word, less physical in its implications, yet also benignly general and vague in a way ‘wounded,’ for instance, is not.

We can try being more specific:

It looked like a rose garden, but he had hurt himself by slipping on the ice.

We can also see, if we look, how lengthening the second sentence segment spoils the effect of the whole:

It looked like a garden, but he had nevertheless managed to hurt himself quite by accident.

The onset of the surprise must be swift, otherwise everything is ruined. Suppose we extend our example’s other arm:

It looked, as well as I could make it out through the early morning mist, like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident.

We can make other substitutions, sometimes rather wild ones, in order to measure the distances between resemblances:

It looked like a flower box, but he had hurt himself by accident.
It looked like a Dali, but he had hurt himself by accident.
It looked like a garden, but he had dug himself up by accident.
It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by post.

It is important that we keep our sentence’s most “normal” form in front of us, namely: “It looked very intentional, but he had hurt himself by accident.” By now, through repetition, and by dint of analysis, the sentence has lost its ability to shock or surprise, and like a religious chant has surrendered whatever meaning it might have had. On the other hand, in a month’s time, out of the blue, the sentence will return to consciousness with the force of a revelation.

What we’ve done, in short, is to reenact the idealized method of its conscious composition. We have made explicit the nature of its verbal choices by examining some of those which might have been made instead, as if we were translating English into English.

If synonymous reading is to be contrasted with antonymical reading, which stresses untranslatability, difference, and uniqueness; then analytical reading, which looks at the way words are put together to achieve certain effects, should be contrasted with synthetical reading, which concentrates on the quality and character of the effect itself. Synthetical reading integrates every element and responds.

Imagine for a moment a consummate Brunswick stew. In such a perfect dish, not only must the carrot contribute its bit, but this carrot must contribute its. As we sample the stew, we first of all must realize we are eating just that: stew. This knowledge gives our tongue its orientation; it tells us what to look for, what values count, what belongs, and what (like bubble gum) does not; it informs us about the method of its preparation. We assure ourselves it is stew we are eating by comparing our present experience with others (or we ask the waitress, who tells us what the chef says). That is, this stew has a general character (look, smell, texture, flavor)—a “gist”—which we then may match with others of its sort. So far we are engaged in synonymous eating (as disgusting as that sounds). One bite of stew, one bowl of chili, one flattened hamburger patty, is like another patty, bowl, or bite. Clearly, for the rapid eater or the speed reader, consciousness will not register much difference, and the difference that does appear will be, of course, in content. I’ve eaten this bowl of porridge, so that bowl must be another one.

But the educated and careful tongue will taste and discriminate this particular stew from every other. Tasting is a dialectical process in which one proceeds from general to specific similarities, but this can be accomplished only through a series of differentiations. Antonymical tasting (which also sounds disgusting) ultimately “identifies” this dish, not only as pure stew, but as Brunswick stew, and knows whether it was done in Creole style or not, and then finally it recognizes, in this plate’s present version of the recipe, that the squirrels were fat and gray and came from Mississippi where they fed on elderberries and acorns of the swamp oak. One grasps an act, an object, an idea, a sentence, synthetically, simply by feeling or receiving its full effect—in the case of the stew that means its complete, unique taste. I need not be able to name the ingredients; I need not be able to describe how the dish was prepared; but I should be a paragon of appreciation. This quality, because it is the experience of differentiation within a context of comparison, cannot be captured in concepts, cannot be expressed in words. Analytical tasting has a different aim. It desires to discover what went into the dish; it reconstructs the recipe, and recreates the method of its preparation. It moves from effects to causes.

Reading is a complicated, profound, silent, still, very personal, very private, a very solitary, yet civilizing activity. Nothing is more social than speech—we are bound together by our common sounds more securely than even by our laws—nevertheless, no one is more aware of the isolated self than the reader; for a reader communes with the word heard immaterially in that hollow of the head made only for hearing, a room nowhere in the body in any ordinary sense. On the bus, every one of us may be deep in something different. Sitting next to a priest, I can still enjoy my pornography, although I may keep a thumb discreetly on top of the title: The Cancan Girls Celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t matter to me that Father McIvie is reading about investments, or that the kid with rusty hair in the seat ahead is devouring a book about handicapping horses. Yet while all of us, in our verbal recreations, are full of respect for the privacy of our neighbors, the placards advertising perfume or footware invade the public space like a visual smell; Muzak fills every unstoppered ear the way the static of the street does. The movies, radio, TV, theater, orchestra: all run on at their own rate, and the listener or the viewer must attend, keep up, or lose out; but not the reader. The reader is free. The reader is in charge, and pedals the cycle. It is easy for a reader to announce that his present run of Proust has been postponed until the holidays.

Reading, that is, is not a public imposition. Of course, when we read, many of us squirm and fidget. One of the closest friends of my youth would sensuously wind and unwind on his forefinger the long blond strands of his hair. How he read: that is how I remember him. Yes, our postures are often provocative, perverse. Yet these outward movements of the body really testify to the importance of the inner movements of the mind; and even those rapid flickers of the eye, as we shift from word to word, phrase to phrase, and clause to clause, hoping to keep our head afloat on a flood of Faulkner or Proust or Joyce or James, are registers of reason: for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response; until its conceptual turns are like the reversals of mood in a marriage: petty, sad, ecstatic, commonplace, foreseeable, amazing.

In order to have this experience, however, one must learn to perform the text, say, sing, shout the words to oneself, give them, with our minds, their body; otherwise the eye skates over every syllable like the speeder. There can be no doubt that often what we read should be skimmed, as what we are frequently asked to drink should be spilled; but the speeding reader is alone in another, less satisfactory way, one quite different from that of the reader who says the words to herself, because as we read we divide into a theater: there is the performer who shapes these silent sounds, moving the muscles of the larynx almost invisibly; and there is the listener who hears them said, and who responds to their passion or their wisdom.

Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another’s words to become hers, his.

In the next moment, let us read a wine, so as to show how many things may be read which have not been written. We have prepared for the occasion, of course. The bottle has been allowed to breathe. Books need to breathe, too. They should be opened properly, hefted, thumbed. Their covers part like pairs of supplicating palms. The paper, print, layout, should be appreciated. But now we decant the text into our wide-open and welcoming eyes. We warm the wine in the bowl of the glass with our hand. We let its bouquet collect above it like the red of red roses seems to stain the air. We wade—shoeless, to be sure—through the color it has liquefied. We roll a bit of it about in our mouths. We sip. We savor. We say some sentences of that great master Sir Thomas Browne: “We tearme sleepe a death, and yet it is waking that kills us, and destroyes those spirits which are the house of life. Tis indeed a part of life that best expresseth death, for every man truely lives so long as hee acts his nature, or someway makes good the faculties of himself . . .” Are these words not from a fine field, in a splendid year? There is, of course, a sameness in all these words: life/death, man/nature; we get the drift. But the differences! the differences make all the difference, the way nose and eyes and cheekbones form a face; the way a muscle makes emotion pass across it. It is the differences we read. Differences are not only identifiable, distinct; they are epidemic: the wine is light, perhaps, spicy, slow to release its grip upon itself, the upper thigh is widening wonderfully, the night air has hands, words fly out of our mouths like birds: “but who knows the fate of his bones,” Browne says, “or how often he is to be buried”; yet as I say his soul out loud, he lives again; he has risen up in me, and I can be, for him, that temporary savior that every real reader is, putting his words in my mouth; not nervously, notice, as though they were pieces of chewed gum, but in that way which is necessary if the heart is to hear them; and though they are his words, and his soul, then, which returns through me, I am in charge; he has asked nothing of me; his words move because I move them. It is like cycling, reading is. Can you feel the air, the pure passage of the spirit past the exposed skin?

So this reading will be like living, then; the living each of you will be off in a moment to be busy with; not always speedily, I hope, or in the continuous anxiety of consequence, the sullenness of inattention, the annoying static of distraction. But it will be only a semblance of living—this living—nevertheless, the way unspoken reading is a semblance, unless, from time to time, you perform the outer world and let it live within; because only in that manner can it deliver itself to us. As Rainer Maria Rilke once commanded: “dance the taste of the fruit you have been tasting. Dance the orange.” I should like to multiply that charge, even past all possibility. Speak the street to yourself sometimes, hear the horns in the forest, read the breeze aloud, and make that inner wind yours, because, whether Nature, Man, or God, has given us the text, we independently possess the ability to read, to read really well, and to move our own mind freely in tune to the moving world.

Reprinted with permission from The William H. Gass Reader © 2018 by William H. Gass. Published by Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

WILLIAM H. GASS—essayist, novelist, literary critic—was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the author of seven works of fiction and nine books of essays, including Life Sentences, A Temple of Texts, and Tests of Time, and was a professor of philosophy at Washington University. He died in 2017.


WILLIAM H. GASS—essayist, novelist, literary critic—was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the author of seven works of fiction and nine books of essays, including Life Sentences, A Temple of Texts, and Tests of Time, and was a professor of philosophy at Washington University. He died in 2017.