Dispatches | May 04, 2011

A while back, just after issue 33.4 came out, Michael Nye asked all the interns to read it through, cover to cover, before the next weekly meeting. And so I did it too—I kept a copy on my bedside table and got through it in a few days—only to be surprised by what an unfamiliar experience it was. I don’t mean that keeping a book on my bedside table and reading through it a little bit at a time was strange to me; the strangeness was in the practice of reading the journal from cover-to-cover, in order, without skipping anything or picking the pieces I most wanted to read first.

It made me aware that I had unconsciously developed a reading practice that reflected the level of distraction, the splitting of attention, I experience in my daily life. When I pick up a new book of poems to read or when I get a new issue of a journal, I always read out of sequence, choosing the poems or features that intrigue me most. Sometimes I never expect to read the whole thing, but even in those instances when I fully intend to revisit the parts I’ve skipped over, I almost never do. I’ll get distracted by another book, or a project that demands all my time for several days, until the unfinished books and journals pile up on my reading chair, the coffee table, the kitchen counter. And eventually I put them away on the shelf, telling myself that one day when I have more time, I’ll come back and finish.

There have been a very few exceptions to this trend. Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife and Louise Glück’s Ararat are two that come to mind: books of poems I’ve read in a single sitting. The poems in those collections are so tight in themselves and so tightly fitted together as a whole manuscript that I felt compelled to read them that way—in sequence, straight through.

In reading The Missouri Review through in sequence, I also came to appreciate a kind of arc, an ordering to the variations between intensity and humor, poetry and prose, that made a big-picture kind of sense. And the theme (in this case “Blindsided”) came through more clearly than themes ever had before in my scattered readings of previous issues. Since this experience with issue 33.4, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I read, the way collections and journals ask to be read, and what might be gained, whether it’s important, to read them in their entirety and in sequence.

I’ve heard writers express a wide range of opinions on the ordering of collections. Some say they look to build a kind of narrative arc in their organization—or I’ve heard that the collection itself should be the final “poem” in the sequence, as intentional in its sequencing and selection as each poem is in its placement of words. Another famous poet once told me, “Nah, I just throw the poems on the ground and then pick them up. Whatever order they happen to be in, that’s the order I choose.” He was being facetious of course, but the point he was trying to make is that ordering doesn’t matter much—that even if the poet’s ordering is intentional, every reader is going to interpret the logic of that ordering differently, or even think that it should be different. He wasn’t even taking into account the fact that many readers would never have the occasion to notice order to begin with.

Now I’m making a big assumption here; I’m assuming that most other readers are as busy and distracted as I am. It may be that I’m alone in my sloppy reading habits. In fact, I hope, for the sake of those writers who do take the care to order their collections intentionally, that I am alone. Yet I can’t help but think that our culture fosters distracted reading. We follow the news on Twitter and RSS feeds, we toggle between the multiple applications we keep open at once on our computers—and we do this in life too, multitasking so seamlessly that our brains have probably been rewired to it. We listen to our iPods on shuffle. We’re accustomed to taking the world in in pieces.

The other day I was on a long drive, and I happened to have Wilco’s A Ghost is Born in my CD player. I had never given the individual songs on that album much thought, but as I listened to the album straight through, and then listened to it straight through again, I thought—wow, this is really good! I never knew what a good album this was. Motifs emerged. Moments of intensity were heightened. Here was an album that was clearly designed as a comprehensive whole, not as a collection of songs thrown haphazardly together. Of course, this isn’t the experience I have listening to every album I own. For many of them, I don’t think much is lost listening to the songs out of sequence.

And perhaps this is true of reading too: if many collections really are ordered by an inscrutable logic, or mostly by chance, then maybe little is lost in a piecemeal reading practice. On the other hand, I know my experience of reading books like Late Wife or listening to albums like Arcade Fire’s Funeral would be impoverished if I approached them this way.

I’d like to give every book I engage with, every album I put onto my iPod, a chance to blow me away in their completeness. I don’t fully know what this means, though. In part, it must involve clearing out the clutter: leaving one book on my nightstand, downloading whole albums and taking my player off of shuffle. I don’t know if I can sustain this—my brain and my schedule with still be cluttered with distractions, even if my coffee table is not—but the payoff, the pleasure of seeing an artist’s design emerge in its fullness, is too good not to try.


Claire McQuerry is contest editor for The Missouri Review