Reading Beyond Your Depths
This is a guest post from Camila Domonoske. Camila is an editor and producer at NPR. Her writing on literature, culture, politics and history has appeared on NPR, The Washington Independent Review of Books, The New Republic and The Nation. You can find her thoughts about poetry, bikes, baking and cat videos on Twitter @camilareads and tumblr (camilashares.tumblr.com).
When I was 19, I moved across the country with my boyfriend and spent a year living in a desert metropolis. Everything about that year was novel to me — the way water evaporated off skin at a visible rate. The mundanity of bills. The isolation of a city full of strangers. Co-habitation. And free time — truly free time.
I was no longer an overachieving, perpetually stressed high school student. Instead, I was a data-enterer, a paper-filer, a inbox-emptier, with a 9-to-5 job that — shocker! — actually ended at 5. Which meant I had hours of every day — hours! — utterly unclaimed.
I learned to cook. I started swing dancing. I hiked arid mountains. But above all, I read.
There was nothing I had to read. I had no assignments. I had no one to impress. I had applied to the kinds of colleges that ask for lists of all the books you’ve read, but I’d already been admitted. I could read anything.
So… I read Gravity’s Rainbow.
Before you laugh, you should know that I had NO idea what I was getting into. My book-selection strategy involved wandering around the library and reading dust jackets. I am not entirely sure I even knew who Thomas Pynchon was. But it looked fun! Why not?
The jacket copy mentioned it was “difficult.” I shrugged it off. I was a high-performing, over-achieving avid reader; I’d always aced my English tests. In my youthful ignorance I thought that, you know, I knew how to read.
And then Thomas Pynchon kicked my ass.
It took me weeks, maybe months, to finish the book. I was frequently delighted: the lightbulb story! the ludicrous songs! I was regularly appalled — the scat! the pedophilia! But throughout it all, week after week, chapter after chapter, I was completely and utterly baffled. I didn’t feel dumb, exactly — it was more like I felt dizzy. Like I’d climbed above my altitude, run out of oxygen, entered free fall.
At one point, a fellow bus-commuter asked about it. “I notice you’re reading Gravity’s Rainbow,” he said, with the polite formality of an older man talking to a teenage girl and trying to make it very clear he’s not hitting on her. He held up his copy of Pynchon’s Vineland to show we were kindred spirits.
“How do you like it?” he asked.
“It’s… interesting,” I managed. I am normally chock-full of opinions, but Pynchon had thrown me off-balance. My quick judgments were replaced by hesitation. The older gentleman waited for me to go on — but I couldn’t. I had nothing else.
It was the first book I’d read where I felt like I was drowning. Like I could read the letters but not the words, the words but not the sentences, the sentences but not the structure.
Here’s what reading Gravity’s Rainbow was like. I’d read a page-long sentence cataloging an assortment of things on somebody’s desk, and the nouns would jumble together and sound pleasantly like poetry. Then I’d realize I only recognized what half the things were. And of those, I had no idea what their significance was. I’d become painfully aware of just how much I was obviously missing.
Then I’d begin to worry about all the things I didn’t even know I was missing. Shortly after, I’d come to suspect that books I’d read in the past, books I thought I had a grasp on, might also be full of things I missed. Then I’d realized I’d been staring at the same page for twenty minutes worrying whether I’d ever understood anything at all.
Then I’d shrug, re-read the melodious catalog of objects, and carry on, not sure which character I was reading about or what year it was or what any of this had to do with the rockets, but having a grand old time, anyway.
It was an amazing insight for someone obsessed with getting things right: I didn’t have to comprehend it to enjoy it. I could savor gorgeous sentences and confront my own confusion. I could rejoice when I finally saw a connection without beating myself up over the ones that I missed. Like so many things that year, this was totally new, kind of scary and ultimately completely delightful.
I read many, many books that year. Most of them faded away into a blur of pleasure or disappointment. But Gravity’s Rainbow lingers. It taught me the pleasure of reading beyond my capacity for comprehension — the joys of befuddlement. It taught me just how much I could get out of a book I never quite got.
And every time I find myself in way over my head — baffled by Anne Carson, Will Self or Haruki Murakami — I remember those hours spent with Pynchon, learning how to read beyond my depth. I take a deep breath. I suppress my English-major impulse to find a tidy interpretation. I look up some of the words (not all), and a few of the references (not many). And I hang on for the ride.