Calling All Readers!

In what follows, San Francisco native Lisa Riordan Seville, a 2006 graduate from the English department, with a second major in Art Practice, talks about the importance of “reading” for her. Lisa currently lives in New York where she is finishing up an internship at the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly and also works as the Communication Associate at the International Justice Network, an organization involved in litigation on behalf of detainees at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Though, she reports, she does not plan to be a lawyer or a literature professor, she finds herself returning often to an eclectic mix of her favorite writers: Joan Didion, Herman Melville, John Milton. In doing so, she opens up the question of literature’s place in today’s world, more specifically: what does it mean to read? It is a question which we hope will not only interest the readers of this blog, but will spark some reactions that you will feel comfortable sharing with our online community.

Hers is thus a contribution, from her life outside the academy, to a debate going on inside it, namely the discussion over the practice of “close reading” (the meticulous attention to small verbal details of mostly canonical texts) vs. “distant reading” (a more globally historical view of the production of texts that ranges far outside of the canon and considers statistical matters like publication trends).


During my tenure as an undergraduate in the English department and in the two years since, I’ve struggled with the tension between reading critically and reading for pleasure. Though by no means mutually exclusive, there are moments in which the act of explaining words robs them of their meaning, or proves limiting. We so often claim to know; we point to our discoveries in symbols or syntax in order to stake a territory of truth. All the while, reading (and English as a discipline) depends upon the ability of words to elide those meanings and subvert our claims. Reading for truth is an elusive promise. Our forty acres and a mule.

Perhaps because I remain unsure of my relationship to the established notions of reading, I find myself setting out to make a place for a reading that walks a line between critical and I’ll call “emphatic” reading, an activity that gives a life to words on paper. I’m using that term tentatively, for I’m not sure what I mean by it. It’s slippery to attempt to talk about the more visceral, aesthetic, or essential relationship between reader and written, and that is why this is going to have to be a group effort.

That is, I mean this column to be a forum for talking about reading, one in which discussions use texts (and I’m taking advantage of the broad contemporary definition of that word) serve as starting points for a discussion of what it means to read, and be a reader, right now. Subjects might range from Lincoln’s inaugural to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous “Wiggle Room,” from Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video to our understanding of the word “torture” — because at the heart of each lie questions essential to people who care about words. At the same time, I want to think about when and if we must draw lines between reading literature and “reading” other kinds of “texts.” Is reading Shakespeare essentially and importantly different than reading the New York Times? Yes, I think it is. But why?

I hope to build a conversation, perhaps a series of posts on this topic treating particular pieces. Reading a blog, significantly, is an exceedingly fluid activity, and our collective energies can take this in almost any direction. That said, respondents should feel free to comment now, offer up their own readings of reading, or argue with others’ — all we ask that everyone remains mutually open and respectful. I hope that we can allow the conversations that take place within the hallowed halls of Wheeler Hall to permeate outwards, and those outside to seep in.