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Reading decoded

May 8, 2013

Earlier today, on VisageTome, Jill of Writing or Typing posted a link to a Huffington Post article on Coverflip, a project where readers of Maureen Johnson’s twitterfeed created revised covers for novels where the gender of the author was reinterpreted. The results are thought-provoking, particularly in the wake of the story about how Wikipedia is moving women novelists out of the American Novelists article. Why do we care about the gender of an author? What interpretive information is coded into our knowledge of an author’s gender (whether through personal experience or via experience as a reader or a member of society)? How does this affect the way we read?

A discussion at Florinda’s blog 3 Rs about Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue raised some similar types of questions for me, as did reading Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Time of Our Singing. The issue with Chabon and with Powers was not gender but race. Both Chabon and Powers are white, but both are writing not about race through the eyes of people of color. I didn’t know anything about Powers until I looked him up partway through my reading on The Time of Our Singing and was shocked to discover he was white. I was even more shocked to discover that this disturbed me. Why are we more comfortable about an author imagining some aspects of a character that are different than the author and not others? Why is it a little disturbing to read a novel about a black man written by a white man? Why does this somehow feel less savory than a man writing a female character? Why does a woman writing a male character not bother me in the least? Is this about notions authenticity (some things have to be lived to be truly known)? Or hegemony (whether or not writing against author type is “okay” depends on whether the socially dominant trait (maleness, whiteness) is the author or the character)? Or both? (Probably).

I’m not sure I can — or want to — answer any of these questions, but I find the questions themselves interesting, because they speak the way we read. We want a context outside the book. We look for information to help us interpret what we see. We make assumptions based on what we think we know about the author.

A book’s cover takes that information and codes it in particular ways for particular reasons. Prioritizing the gender over the nationality of female novelists listed on Wikipedia is problematic for the way its categories would seem to reflect notions of ability or type — there are many articles about authors of various nations; there is no article about “male authors.” When publishers choose “girly” covers for all their novels by women authors, although the pigeonholing effect may be the same as with the Wikipedia situation, the motivation is different: They are doing it because they think it sells books.

I do not design book covers (nor would you want me to), but at the Toy Factory, I have a pretty intimate view of the process (albeit for a different kind of product). I can tell you that we think about all of these things carefully, but that the most important questions we answer for each new toy design are, Will this cover attract buyers?, and, Does this cover reflect the contents? Because you can design an attractive cover, but if it does not somehow reflect the insides, it will ultimately be dissatisfying and will piss readers off. For example, check out the (in my opinion, totally justified) uproar over a re-covering of Anne of Green Gables that suggested Anne had given up her literary ways and turned to the (bleach) bottle in order to pursue life as a soft-core porn star.

How much baggage do we really need to bring to a book? Is it possible to judge a book not by its author, not by its cover, but by its text? Is it advisable? My training as an historian specializing in music as a reflection of cultural context suggests maybe not. Some things can be dangerous to consider outside the associations we bring with them. I made an argument to that effect a number of years ago about how to perform Bach’s St. John Passion while appropriately addressing its anti-Semitic language. [Eek. 10 years ago. I blogged about that 10 years ago. How did that happen?] And yet, there’s that experience that we all (I hope) carry with us from childhood of falling into the world of a book — sometimes there’s value in leaving the context behind for a while.

These days, I read most of my fiction on a Kindle, which I find much easier to manage on the subway because you can hold it and turn pages with one hand. One of the unexpected side effects of using an e-reader is the realization of how much I rely on certain cues from the printed page. One is the pages themselves. Kindle offers a percentage read, so you know how far you are, but your sense of the space-time of the book changes. Also, I find the percentage can encourage self-competitive reading, especially in longer books. While reading David Foster Wallace’s tome Infinite Jest, I pushed myself to read more in order to see those percentage points tick up. Apparently I like to win at reading and the change in format has changed the way I read.

Another big change in visual cues is the cover. On e-readers, some books include images of their print covers, but even those that do are usually set to begin after the cover image — if you want to see the cover, you have to go looking for it. And since my e-reader is strictly black and white, I don’t usually go looking. Books are now entirely about text.

My knowledge of the author is still an influence on my reading, of course, but overall, I find I go into a new book with many fewer expectations than I do with print books — mainly, I think, because I don’t see the cover. And interestingly I’m much more likely to take a chance on a totally unknown book. The price point on e-books and the possibility of instant gratification contributes to that, but so does another Kindle feature — the preview.

With print books, to find a new book, I’d browse in a bookstore, where I’d be swayed by the cover, the size and shape of the book and maybe a tag saying one of the booksellers recommended it. With e-books, I browse lists or words or even by price and then try a free sample. The free sample takes the place of the cover. It’s what makes me decide whether or not I’d like a book enough to buy it. Not surprisingly, it’s a much better system to read a book than to look at the cover. I’ve become a much more adventurous consumer of fiction — and even non-fiction, although I still prefer most non-fiction in book form, mainly due to my frustration with the way e-readers handle footnotes — since I started using a Kindle and I think a lot of that has to do with being less influenced by cover image and more influenced by what the book actually says. Looking through the books I’ve read on my e-reader since the beginning of the year, I can see a clear pattern where I start with a book that someone’s recommended and than tacked on other books that I’ve discovered through browsing and sampling things that show up when I search for the book I just read. It’s probably been the longest jag of books I’ve really liked that I’ve ever been on. And many were things I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t heard much about before trying them.

So is there a case to be made for more naive reading? I’m not an adherent to the theory of intentional fallacy, but the notion of art on art’s own terms has its charms. I’m not sure that the way I read on the Kindle is better — I read less deeply than when I can create my own elaborate marginalia — but I am exposed to many more ideas from many more places reading this way. I am less influenced by what marketers think I should know about books. I am less influenced by cultural context while I am reading when I am not constantly confronted with a book’s frontmatter (the downside, of course, is that these days I can almost never remember the name of the book I am reading, as you are not constantly confronted with the title at the top of a page in an e-reader).

Instead, the context comes back when I’m done reading. I read The Time of Our Singing on my Kindle, read it for love, page after compelling page of small stories and huge ideas. I fell into the story, fell so far that I missed my subway stop on more than one occasion, so far that I learned to set my alarm when I got on the train so I remembered to get off. I finished it a month ago and as you can see, I’m still thinking about it. I may miss some of the details by plowing through books fast while travelling not fast enough. But the ideas sink in and govern my next steps, with less baggage telling me how to react. As dedicated as I am to print books, I have to say that I like this part.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2013 11:24 am

    a.) VisageTome: love it.

    b.) Coincidentally, a colleague and I were talking about how we assume or assign gender when reading student work (we score student papers blind to the identity of the writer), how wrong we sometimes are, and how disconcerted we both were by realizing how automatic our assumptions about gender are.

  2. May 8, 2013 12:02 pm

    It’s true! We get very confused when we can’t tell. Clearly gender matters to our interpretive desires. But why? I was recently going over a paper I wrote eons ago where I interviewed women composers about their lives and work. With each I discussed the notion of the “woman composer” — nearly all confessed a hatred of that term (along the lines of the Wikipedia fiasco — but at the same time pointed out that being a woman had affected their musical education, their performance venues, the performers with whom they worked. How could being female be irrelevant? I asked. It isn’t, of course. It’s one of many things. It becomes problematic when we think it’s the only thing, just as race is (which is kind of what the Richard Powers novel is about). Eliminating gender as a category isn’t the answer either. But maybe we need to think more about why it’s one of the first questions we ask — or one of the first things we think we know for sure.

  3. May 8, 2013 12:31 pm


    It’s also a problem because “female composer” seems to say that the default is “male composer.” While numerically this may be true (now), it’s sociologically troubling, because such treatment makes it a self-perpetuating default.

  4. May 8, 2013 12:37 pm

    Yes, along the lines of what I said somewhere way up there about the difference between defining someone as an American novelist vs. a woman novelist. But to do away with the framework that brings women composers to light is still problematic. This is an active problem at the Toy Factory — something I can’t discuss in detail here, unfortunately. But we look for ways both to draw attention to the underserved population and also to prepare for the day when we don’t need to. To use the Wikipedia example, yes, maybe we still need an article on women novelists (although I’m not sure about that — certainly less necessary than women symphonists), but we also need to be putting those women’s names in places where their gender is not defining them. Put them in the American novelists. Put them in novelists. Put them where they need to go. And eventually, the women novelists article will be moot. Or at least, I’m hoping so.

  5. May 8, 2013 2:23 pm

    I like to fall into books, and get very cross when people suggest that context should affect the way I read. I like my context after the fact.

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