When I was in college, my mom printed everything I sent her. I’d shoot off an email about next semester’s classes, and my phone would light up — my mother’s face, trapped in a black rectangle: “OK, one second babe. Let me print this.” Then the wailing of the ink cartridges moving across their little ribbons. “This looks like a good schedule, hon! I’ve always wanted to learn about the Holocaust. Do you realize how lucky you are?”
It was good to know she got back to me quickly, even with all that printing nonsense.
Today, I rank my friends based on how quickly they read whatever draft essays/stories I send them. I have a friend who always says, “we should get dinner” (whatever the hell that means), and she recently replied to an email I’d sent containing a new essay draft with, “I am definitely going to read this!!”
Don’t going to me. Don’t put this in your iCal. Don’t wait until the next aurora borealis and then (maybe) read, and then reply: “very thought-provoking!” Shoot me in the face.
Instead, put your thumb on the Word doc, watch it fill your rectangle, and stare at it for one minute. It’s one godforsaken page.
Do I just have flaky friends, or when did reading become such a thing? Has it always been?
Back in 400, St. Augustine wrote about the strange case of a colleague – St. Ambrose – who used to read silently. This was weird/awkward in 400. In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes that, when Ambrose read, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”
This freaked St. Augustine out, a bit. It’s the first time silent reading is mentioned in Western lit.
In 400, books were luxury items: producing them involved animal parts – catgut, deer hide, actual blood, etc. Most people were illiterate, so reading happened aloud. It was a generous thing: aristocrats spreading transcendence to those who smelled worse than them. Like sharing the foie gras at a fancy dinner. You wouldn’t keep all that for yourself.
St. Ambrose, then, was fucking selfish.
Reading was his own damn business. His heart was seeking, but, per St. Augustine, his tongue was chillin.
And so I think my friends who get all nervy and calendar-y when I send them drafts just haven’t quite reached that St. Ambrose level of chill. They’re like most folks in antiquity. Reading is too special for them.
Or they still feel like reading is a thing that happens in school. Remember in college when everyone said, “I have to do this reading” all the time? Reading was not a verb. It was always a noun. Something you had to put on your calendar, buy coffee for, sit down in front of, and pole-vault over.
We are no longer in college (well, I’m not). Reading is not something we are paying to do. And, nowadays, it’s not as much of a privilege as it was in college, or in 400. You used to have to put on your upper class hat to do it. Now you do not.
Friends: If it’s under 1000 words, just read it when I send it to you. Do it on the toilet. Do it on the subway. Do it while masturbating. Do it in bed with your phone nuzzled by your face.
And don’t wait until you feel smart. I want you to read it when you’re at your dumbest. Your most cursory. Half brain. Just thumb it on the subway and look at it for a few seconds – you don’t have to read every word! Just graze it! – and tell me if you’re still interested. That’s how strangers will read. Don’t get all fluffy and dainty with your comments because you want me to look up to you. Ugh.
Since it seems none of my friends are willing to shut the fuck up and read, when I get a little more scratch, I’m going to hire an intern from NYU. I’ll call them a “fellow” — ha! They will review anything I write – not for editing, but for: “Do you want to read this? Have you heard this before? Is there a word/sentence/idea turning you off or on?” I’ll watch them from across the room and write about how quiet they are, like I’m St. Aug and they’re St. Amb.
Before I posted this, I sent it to one friend. He still hasn’t replied. He just tweeted three times. Well, great.