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What Makes a Reader Good at Reading? [Some May Translations]

In a couple weeks, the IDPF Digital Book Conference will take place in New York under the theme of “Putting Readers First.” As part of this Ed Nawokta (Publishing Perspectives founder and international publishing guru of sorts), Boris Kachka (Hothouse author and former BEA frond-waver [sorry, inside joke]), Andrew Albanese (Publishers Weekly and fan of all the teams my teams lose to, like Chelsea and the Yankees), and Kristin Nelson (Nelson Literary Agency) are scheduled to discuss whether Amazon is “good for readers,” a panel that’s sure to provoke both bookselling traditionalists and the new wave of ebook-loving Amazon loyalists.

When Ed mentioned this panel over dinner the other day, Will Evans of Deep Vellum expressed the reaction common to most all publishing people: “Amazon’s good for consumers but not readers. It’s bad for reading.”

Which, when you think about it, makes no sense. You’re not a better reader for having purchased your book at a local indie store, just as you’re not better at brushing your teeth if you refuse to buy toothpaste from Walmart. How you acquire your goods has no impact on how you actually engage with them—that’s a totally different process.

Will immediately agreed with me, backing off his instant condemnation and admitted that “if you buy a book from Amazon your eyes are just scanning over the words” is ridiculous statement, but one that you can imagine some die-hard anti-Amazonists making—and being totally serious about.

I suspect that Digital Book World is conflating the words “readers” and “book buyers,” but if not, what an odd topic for a panel. Because how can a retailer—especially of cultural goods—be responsible for making their customers “better” at using the products they buy?

All of this got me thinking though: How does one become a better reader? How do you learn this skill? And what exactly makes you a “good” reader?

Seeing that I’m based at a top notch university, and graduated with a degree in English, and work in publishing, and write about books a lot, and think about reading basically all the time, I feel like I should have some decent answers to these questions . . . but I really don’t.

If you take a sort of high school English approach to this, being a “good reader” is being able to identify themes and point of view, decipher symbols and metaphors, understand characterization, etc. Break down a piece of writing into its general components and “analyze” them in five-paragraph thesis papers.

These things are all great, but do they really help you judge whether a sentence is “well-written” or help you judge whether a book as a whole is successful? There’s so much more to a book than its organizing images and the fact that the story is an example of Man vs. Nature. I think.

In college, theories start to get worked into the mix, and being a “good reader” means that you’re good at applying Marxist/Feminist/Freudian/Post-Structural theory to a text, pulling out elements so that you can expand (still in five-paragraph, thesis-driven format) on some greater truths or observations about the world. In theory (sorry), the point of this approach is to make you a better reader of life, of all the texts—novels to film, street signs to non-verbal codes, cultural and architectural structures—connecting the work you do as a liberal arts major or professor to the “real world.”

I’m not sure that writers, or booksellers, or critics, or publishers, would necessarily agree that these are the absolute qualities of a good reader, since readers steeped in this methodology tend to ignore style in favor of content, and really only that content that supports a pre-existing paradigm, making you more of a good interpreter than a good reader.

Whatever criteria one chooses, I think it can be assumed that when a good reader reads a good book, something more than simple entertainment takes place. But maybe not. Maybe the best readers are the ones who can let a book take them over, let it guide their thoughts and emotions, instead of trying to crack it open, or utilize it as a tool in a greater theory.

Maybe good readers are the ones who are slow readers, who pay attention and notice things, and the process of noticing and making connections is what makes them “good.”

Regardless of the criteria, how does one become good at reading? On some level, this can be taught—you learn how metaphors and motifs work, you’re taught to pay attention in a certain way—but a lot of it comes from, well, simply reading a lot. You get better at pattern recognition—within a book and within books as a whole—the more books you’re exposed to, and, like some sort of textual feedback loop, the more texts you’re exposed to the more patterns you’re aware of and able to recognize.

One practical example: I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake all this year, and I really wonder what makes you a good reader of this book. What does it even mean to “read” a book that’s impossible to fully understand (another rubric for being a good reader is “understanding a book at a deep level”), because it is so coded with languages, puns, verbal jokes, misspellings, obscure references, and interior jokes? Where every sentence can be interpreted in several different ways? How do you prepare to be a good reader of this? Are you a good reader if you can explain the plot (which actually isn’t all that complicated), or do you have to be able to explain everything?

I could go on about this for a while, but the thing that keeps coming to mind is how being a good reader, to me at least, means being able to take part of ongoing literary conversations. This could take part in a classroom, or by reading, understanding, and reacting to a London Review of Books/New Yorker/New York Review of Books/Bookforum review, or through conversations with booksellers, critics, or other good readers. The conversation aspect is what really counts in my opinion. You can write as many college essays as you want, but that doesn’t mean that you can hold your own at a New Directions party.

And that’s the part that’s most fascinating to me. I’m not sure that reading a ton of books improves the quality of your life (to be honest, if you’re anything like me, it just makes you more miserable and aware of your shortcomings and impending death), but if it does, it’s not only through the books themselves and being able to see things in them and understand their craft and impact, but by being able to share that with others.

Which is something you have to create—find a community, engage with the conversation—and something that bookstores could facilitate. More on that next month. For now, let’s get to the May books!

The Indian by Jón Gnarr, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Deep Vellum)

Calligraphy Lesson by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Deep Vellum)

Probably should’ve included The Indian last month, but I had it coded for May in our database . . . Anyway, Gnarr was here in Rochester at the end of April for a couple stellar events. I could go on and on about how great he and his family are, but instead I want to mention how much my daughter LOVED this book. Here’s a picture of her copy with marks for all the bits she either a) found funny or b) contained Icelandic words she couldn’t pronounce:

This is the first book that both of us read at the same time—and both really enjoyed. That’s a strange, fantastic sensation. She even got up at one of our events to try and convince everyone there that they needed to read The Indian. Natural born sales rep!

Shishkin you probably already know of, if not because of Maidenhair, then because of this New York Times op-ed.

Behind the Station by Arno Camenisch, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Dalkey Archive)

I Saw Her That Night by Drago Jančar, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (Dalkey Archive)

First of all, as Michael Orthofer pointed out at the Literary Saloon, Dalkey Archive is moving to the University of Houston-Victoria, which I’d only heard of because it’s the home to American Book Review. ABR was also together with Dalkey at Illinois State, so in a way, this move makes some sense . . . Long way from Illinois though, in terms of location and perceived status, but at least Dalkey has a base from which to continue bringing out all their various series. And maybe Dalkey can link up with Deep Vellum to get introduced to the Texas Book scene that Will Evans has been helping create . . .

In terms of these two books, Dustin Kurtz sang the praises of Camenisch’s first book on Twitter, which caught my attention. (He said something about it being the best book of the summer of 2014, even though it’s only like 60 pages.) This is the second part of a trilogy, and since I’m planning on catching up on a number of series this summer—My Struggle, the Ferrante, that crazy new Danielewski thing—I’m moving this to the top of my pile.

And I really like Jančar’s Mocking Desire, which Northwestern brought out a million or so years ago. I haven’t read any of the newer books of his that Dalkey has been doing, but this one seems like as good a place as any to get back into him.

Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany (Open Letter)

If you listen to our podcast, or receive our newsletter, or are friends with me on Facebook, then you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about Antoine Volodine.

So instead of going on about his incredible project (“Think Faulkner, but after an apocalypse.”) and all the reasons you should read this strange book—and then go back and read everything else of his that’s available in English—I’m just going to direct you to Music & Literature where all week they’re going to be posting Volodine-related content, including a review of this title, and an except from Lutz Bassmann’s The Eagles Reek.

Divine Punishment by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (McPherson & Company)

I actually ran into Nick Caistor and his wife Amanda Hopkinson at a PEN World Voices event last weekend. They are two of the best translators in the world. Not only because they’re so talented, but because they’re great, happy people who have done a lot for the world of translation, be it via the Arts Council England, British Center for Literary Translation, or by mentoring younger translators. Overall, they are just wonderful and it’s always good to be able to highlight a book that they worked on.

And what a book! Ignore that cover for a minute and just read this:

Upon its original publication, Carlos Fuentes declared Divine Punishment to be the quintessential Central American novel. In this, the greatest work of a storied literary career, Sergio Ramírez transforms the most celebrated criminal trial in Nicaraguan history—the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a Casanova named Oliverio Castañeda—into an examination of the entire Nicaraguan society at the brink of the first Somosa dictatorship. Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order.

There is some backstory to this about how a major publisher was going to bring it out, but after the Sandinistas lost the election in 1990, the book was dropped. (This is all hearsay, but an intriguing story.) Also worth noting that this is only the sixth book from Nicaragua to be listed in the Translation Database. Sixth.

The Guilty by Juan Villoro, translated from the Spanish by Kimberly Traube (George Braziller)

I have no idea why I haven’t published Villoro at either Dalkey or Open Letter. His name has been around for years, and now that George Braziller has broken the seal, expect four or five of his books to come out to wild acclaim over the next couple years.

El Testigo is the book I would’ve like to see come out first, but whatever, I’m sure these stories are just as brilliant.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press)

The Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-Francois Caron, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson (Talonbooks)

If you’re outside of the industry you probably haven’t noticed this at all, but over the past couple years, Consortium has taken over as the distributor of translated fiction. Sure, they no longer sell Knausgaard or Ferrante (they once did!), but in terms of sheer volume and quantity, no one can compete with them. New Vessel, Deep Vellum, Open Letter, Hispabooks are four translation-only presses Consortium represents to go along with Akashic, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon, Bellevue, Coach House, Coffee House, Talonbooks, Biblioasis . . . I could figure this out if I wanted, but I’ll bet Consortium represents a larger percentage of translations coming out in the States than any other distributor out there. That’s impressive. I like that.

One of the aspects of the book trade that doesn’t get a lot of play from those of us writing about the industry are the sales reps. Granted, they’re honored by Publishers Weekly every year, but online, in blogs like this, we rarely discuss the valuable role they play in getting books from the publisher into the stores. For more than a decade, I did this myself, visiting Sessalee at B&N and calling on over a hundred independent stores. It was thankless and difficult. Since switching to Consortium, our sales are up over 40%, thanks mostly to the sales reps. That’s remarkable. And these reps are such great book people. They see everything, they dip into all of the books, they love bookstores and the whole process. I think it would be interesting to have a rep write something for a place like Publishing Perspectives about the process of being a rep. How it works, how many books you end up fronting, how many stores you visit, what the future of repping is in our digitally-obsessed world. I’d personally read that. Man, if I ever get out of publishing, I think this would be the job for me. Read all the books and talk to all the best booksellers!

The Game for Real by Richard Weiner, translated from the Czech by Benjamin Paloff (Two Lines Press)

Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovaly, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Soho Press)

All the Czech literature! Both of these books look really interesting, although Two Lines wins in terms of the most eye-catching cover. Although I must say, that guy’s face seems pretty disconnected from the fact that Richard Weiner, who died in 1937, was praised by Hrabal, was a member of the French surrealists, and was one of the Czech Republic’s greatest existential writers. There’s something about that cover that seems so now to me. Which is good for Two Lines. Bust out of the stodgy, traditional sort of cover that one would expect for a Serious Practitioner of Existential Art and get fans of Fight Club to pick it up.

I was initially interested in featuring Innocence because of all the great work Alex Zucker has been doing of late, and because I love all the Soho Press employees and their tiki bar obsession, but once reading the description, I just simply want to read this book.

In 1985, Czech Holocaust memoirist, literary translator, and political exile Heda Margolius Kovály turned her pen to fiction. Inspired by the stories of Raymond Chandler, Kovály knit her own terrifying experiences in early 1950s Socialist Prague—her husband’s imprisonment and wrongful execution, her own persecution at his disgrace—into a gorgeous psychological thriller-cum-detective novel.

Set in and around a cinema where a murder was recently committed, Innocence follows the unfolding of the investigation while telling the stories of the women who work there as ushers, each of whom is forced to support herself in difficult circumstances. As the novel brings this group alive, it tells their various life stories that have brought them to this job, the secrets they share with one another, and the secrets they keep. When the detective trying to solve the first murder is found slain by the cinema, all of their secrets come into the light.

Death and Socialism—perfect combo for a summer read!

Confessions by Jaume Cabré, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Arcadia)

I’m curious to see what happens to the Arcadia list over the next few years, now that the founder and principle editors are all gone . . . I suspect that by 2017, this will be a very different sort of house. Which sucks, since they have a great track record of doing interesting literature in translation . . .

Anyway, like all of Cabré’s books, this sounds really fascinating. But man, does this guy write long. 751 pages?! Who does he think he is, Knausgaard? (Kidding, kidding.) As one-sentence descriptions of books go, this one is pretty killer: “At 60 and with a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s, Adria Ardevol re-examines his life before his memory is systematically deleted.” Daaaammmn. Stylistically, there’s a lot that could be done with that.

Random note: I’m actually writing this from Torino, where later this afternoon I’m going to be giving a presentation on Italian literature in translation (and the lack thereof). Last time I was here was in 2010, when I first met Maya Faye Lethem’s brother in person and he took me to a place called “Seven Dwarfs” for farinata, which is one of the most delicious things in the universe. Oh, and a literal dwarf served us. I’m not making this up. It was an experience. This is exactly why I like to travel. Books and odd dining experiences.



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