LITERATURE: Reading Like a Writer

Love this; in illustrating close reading (and at the same time, pointing out writing excellence), Francine Prose takes apart Paul Bowles’ story A Distant Episode, describing it as "the literary equivalent of a kick in the head." 

The tale concerns a linguist knnown only as "the Professor," who travels into the North African desert in search of exotic languages anad armed with the arsenal of the timid tourist.  The contents of the Professor’s ‘two small overnight bags full of maps, sun lotions, and medicines’ provide a tiny mini-course in the importance of close reading.  The protagonist’s anxiety and cautiousness, his whole psychological makeup, has been communicated in five words ("maps, sun lotions, and medicines") and without the need to use one descriptive adjective or phrase.  (He was an anxious man, who worried about getting lost or sunburned or sick, and so forth.)  What very different conclusions we might form about a man who carries a bag filled with dice, syringes, and a hand gun.  (p. 29)

Yes!  This is what we should be automatically reading for; the subtlety of language, the things not said and yet in obvious evidence.

Sometimes we forget. I believe I’ve read this short story–though I don’t remember the author or the title–since Prose’s continued description of the narrative sounds extremely familiar.  But how did I read it?  I know that it would have likely been in a lit or writing course, and knowing the professor I had, I’m sure this was pointed out (unless I read it on my own, over and above the required reading in the compendium which was a good thing to do since I hit upon Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing that way.)

I think I need to relearn to read the stories in the literary journals with this same intense scrutiny–warranted or not.

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