The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

Part of this interview, on reading, resonated deeply, though the entire interview is extraordinary, as is Handke’s To Duration.

“PH: One’s manner of reading changes throughout life. I believe that I’ve only now reached a point where I’ve really learned to read. Or at least that I’ve realized how I used to read. Not even when I was reading Stifter could I really read. It was often … for example, Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Hölderlin’s Hyperion: I read them at the wrong time, I didn’t understand anything of them, and I also didn’t understand, as Ludwig Hohl says, that different authors have different reading speeds. The reading speed I had earlier was much different than the one I have now, which I think is really the one that suits me best. I now only want to be able to, to be allowed to read slowly.

HG: And you write this way as well. That brings to mind: one student found this slow tempo an imposition: how at the beginning of Slow Homecoming, with these long sentences, you force this slowness onto the reader, like in a Wagner opera.

PH: I can understand that very well. At twenty I probably would have stopped reading after two sentences.

HG: Yes, one can only either stop reading or fully give oneself over to it. But to superficially take it in, ‘informative reading’, as it’s called, that doesn’t work.

PH: Nor in the evening before going to sleep, reading in bed, that doesn’t work at all.

HG: Carefully reading a few sentences, that works. But so quickly…

PH: You also can’t force anyone to do anything. You can’t say: you must read at this precise speed.

HG: But otherwise it doesn’t work; one has to read at that tempo.

PH: But I really can assure anyone, if they give it a try, if they want to and are able to read so slowly, they’ll get something out of it.

HG: Yes, then and only then. And that shouldn’t be a reproach!

PH: I have a great need: not simply to read slowly, but rather to slow myself down through reading. But it’s more than that. If it doesn’t work that way, then I lose all pleasure in reading. When I start scanning again, devouring the pages like I used to, then I start to feel my limbs and extremities becoming cold – which is for me a physical sign, when I get cold – only the cheeks remain hot. Then I know that I’m not reading correctly, or that the book’s not the right one for me. But then when everything becomes warm: the heart, the mind, the senses, out to the smallest fingertips; when I also stall – not falter: when I’m able to stall, to pause, then my reading is an all-embracing perception, then it’s … then out of this self-immersion there arises a vision, a completely natural, logical vision of the outermost world (not just the outer world). For me that’s just … it’s completely organic … for me that’s the only way it works with certain things – so that I can ponder them, pore over them. Although there are moments of longing for the old speedy ‘page-turner’ reading – not ‘longing’: rather nostalgia for the page-turner era. Then one puts away the Hölderlin poem, or whatever ancient text, and one picks up something by an author like Simenon, and for a while it’s like being in a speedboat. But for the duration (and I say that expressly: for the duration), the other kind of reading – the reading I have now learned, have now acquired – is the only kind that deserves the name.”

With thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for pointing towards this superb interview: The Sun of Words, excerpts from Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, an interview between Herbert Gamper and Peter Handke.

8 thoughts on “The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

  1. To Duration is, indeed, a wonderful poetic meditation. I am a very slow reader and this year I have engaged in more ongoing, deeper reads, often with shorter reads and poetry alongside. Reading, it seems to me, has its seasons, its ebb and flow, and its idiosyncratic pathways; and that it is most rewarding to follow them, whatever that means at the time.

    • It is rare that I deliberately pace myself when reading. If a book is such that it induces self-forgetting, or what I would obviously think of as suspending time’s flow, it’s normally a sign that the book is rich and rewarding. For exceptional or more difficult books, I will break more frequently to decrypt a passage, scribble some notes, or just stare at the clouds in thought for an hour or two. It is only for the most rewarding books that I will slow myself deliberately to prolong the pleasure of the writer’s company and defer the anxiety of reaching the end. I am however conscious of being a much better reader now to the extent I am contemplating rereading many of the fine books I read in my twenties.

  2. It is refreshing to see someone advocating for slow reading. I am a PhD Literature student and suffer constantly for not being able to take my time reading. Academia is increasingly supporting fast paced reading, fast paced intellectual production, like canned criticisms of literature. I recently participated in a selection for a teaching position at Uni, and noticed that most candidates are working with Film Studies or Adaptation Studies. It bugged me because for a while I did not feel like I was attending a Literature class at all, but something else. I guess it is a consequence of this fast paced environment. Great read, Anthony. I’ll look for the whole interview. Thanks!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mariana. It is ironic that precisely where the most contemplative reading should be taking place, in academia, the opposite is more frequently the norm. One of my favourite contemporary academics, Rita Felski, writes eloquently about this situation. I’m pleased you enjoyed the fragment and hope you find the whole interview as rewarding as I did. I read it three times, slowly, and took three pages of notes.

  3. Very thought-provoking extract, Anthony. My reading habits have changed dramatically over the years, and although I still sometimes read too quickly I’m slowing down by necessity as I’m reading more deeply. This doesn’t always sit well with my natural tendency to rush, but it’s becoming essential.

    • Once you lose yourself in a good book the prose sets its own pace. It isn’t uncommon for me to read a book twice, once to know how it unfolds and immediately a second time to savour the sentences and form.

  4. “A delicate slowness is the tempo of these conversations.” Nietzsche (epigraph in Handke’s Über die Dörfer). And if it is the tempo of the written conversations, it makes sense that it ought to be the tempo of a reader’s conversation with the book

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