I am now in the middle of a couple good books, and I’m realizing that the editor’s voice in the back of my mind can never be fully turned off. I find bad word choices jarring, I cringe at stilted dialogue, and I just about pass out when I find a spelling error. As a former lowly worker in the publishing industry, I know how little editors are paid and appreciated, but every time I wince while reading a new novel, I want to call up the editor in charge and offer my services gratis.
Of course, some of this impulse to edit on the go comes from being a voracious reader, and I know many bookish non-editor types who confess to the same reading habits. I was an English major in college, trained to read closely and carefully, looking for broad themes, detailed characterization, and turns of phrase. I was also a Women’s Studies minor, which means that I read everything closely and carefully in an entirely different manner — not looking for the artistic merit of the work, but rather for the politics at play in the writing, the subject matter, what is omitted and what is left in. The former kind of reading is often best suited for fiction and poetry, but a feminist lens can be trained on fiction and nonfiction alike. As I referenced in my post and comments a couple weeks ago, I love reading any kind of media critically. I feel much more involved in whatever I’m reading/viewing/consuming.
I’m currently tearing through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the first in a popular YA series of novels about a post-American-apocalypse society that requires 24 kids a year to fight to the death in the wilderness, on camera. It’s like Death Race 2000, but with teenagers and no speedy cars. It’s an engrossing read, as you might imagine, and the main character, Katniss, is easy to like and also easy to sympathize with as she makes rash decisions, hurts people who care for her, and generally behaves like a teenager, albeit one faced with the horrifying task of hunting and killing her peers before they kill her.
When I’m reading this book, I am first and foremost looking to have fun, to immerse myself in a strange-but-scarily-not-so-strange world, and eagerly anticipate what happens next. I’m reading for tight plotting, characters who change in interesting ways, and, uh, brutal deaths. I’m two-thirds of the way through, and so far I’m not disappointed, but I did have to put the book down and huff about “these editors today” when I read a line about a noise that PROCEEDED a certain action. No, it did not. It quite possibly CAME BEFORE, in a PRE kind of way, like maybe it PRECEDED that action. I never took a single Latin class, but I’ve read enough to understand the basics of prefixes and suffixes, and how they fit into words we use on a pretty regular basis. An editor should be a reader first, and the other necessary skills follow. If you’ve read enough, and paid enough attention to the words themselves as you’re reading (and not just the story), and you don’t have a problem with spelling in general (I know that’s a real thing) or another learning disability, you will start to notice that things like “The gong proceeded the announcer arriving” are ridiculous, and you will open your red pen with a flourish as you go to work. Ahem. Anyway. Get off my lawn.
The other book I’m reading is A Concise History of Australia by Stuart Macintyre. (I know, right? Finally! Get on that ACAM project, already, Lisa!) I am only 10 pages in, and it is already leagues better than A Traveller’s History of Australia by John Chambers. Both books start off with some discussion of the Aborigines’ arrival in Australia and way of life there for thousands of years before Cook showed up in 1770. But Chambers’ book starts with Cook, fills in the Aborigines for a couple of pages, writes them off basically as uncivilized savages, and then gets back to the white people. Macintyre, on the other hand, starts with Cook, describes that popular history timeline, then introduces the Aboriginal arrival as the more accurate starting point, and delves into what this means for history and the national Australian story.
I’m ditching Chambers for Macintyre, no question. His whole worldview is more comprehensive and more complex than Chambers’, and that is the kind of worldview I’m looking for when learning about new places. Every record of history will have its own perspective, prejudices, and problems, but I’m going to seek out those histories that at least acknowledge that fact and engage with the challenges in recording history — what you leave in, what you leave out, whose point of view you use (let’s be clear that third person does not equal objectivity; everyone has a specific point of view), what conclusions you draw, etc.
Which I suppose brings me back to the two kinds of reading I do — the literary and the analytical. The truth is that good analytical thinking is applicable to any kind of writing, and literary analysis can be applied to even dry nonfiction (does the writer return to her themes? does she use clear, concise language — or, if she’s experimenting with a different form, does she use that form to good effect?).
A good reader uses different tools for reading different types of writing, but the basics are the same. In my case, being a good reader (of this Macintyre book but also of the Collins book) means reading not just for style and content, but also for context, intent, and implications. Learning about new countries is useless if that knowledge is based on faulty logic, privileged premises, and shortsighted analysis. When readers insist on seeing books that go beyond this limited, damaging writing to writing that engages in complex, challenging concepts and discussions, we’ll see more of such writing. The writing will improve, the discussions centered around that writing will improve, and eventually the social and political mindset will improve. Yes, art is that powerful.
I once told my English professor that I wished I were a better writer. “All I’m good at,” I told him morosely, “is reading.” He looked right at me and said, “Actually, I think being a good reader is just as important as being a good writer.” I’m beginning to see what he meant.