In his book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, M. Mitchell Waldrop defines the edge of chaos as "the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive." That’s where my reading habits live; on that line between the stagnation of another book saying the same old thing, and the anarchy of books that are so empty they do nothing to edify my mind and soul. That’s where I occasionally find a book with a soul of its own that forever becomes part of me. Wikipedia defines a complex system as one “composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties not obvious from the properties of the individual parts.” When it comes to reading, that complex system is what I call the literary conversation.
In 2003 I read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Most of the book is concerned with the various levels of reading - from skimming to syntopical - and the various methods and processes involved in reading at each of those levels. There is also a lengthy section with chapters on ways to approach the reading of different genres. While I found all this interesting, I felt it was ultimately impractical for me because focusing on the method by which I read would distract from the enjoyment reading has always given me. I'm sure I've subconsciously incorporated some of the things I learned from Adler and Van Doren, but I can't make myself follow a set of steps or procedures to do something I enjoy doing in the way I've always done it.
The first thing from the book that has stuck with me is a statement to the effect that, to be considered well-read, one should have at some point read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. I'm not sure why that stuck with me or why it then became important for me to read them. Maybe it was just another "reading list" to be conquered, but the almost total absence of poetry in all my years of reading made this one a little daunting. Since 2003 I've read and enjoyed the first four, and I look forward to getting into Paradise Lost at some point. One of the benefits of having read these is that my reading of books that reference them directly or allude to them has been enhanced.
The second thing I took from Adler and Van Doren is their actual reading list, included as an appendix. It’s very heavy on the ancient classics, philosophy, and science, so working through it has been a lengthy process.
The last two things are somewhat related and are those that have most impacted my reading; not how I read, but how my reading effects me. These are the concepts of the pyramid of books and the conversation of great books – the literary conversation. The authors contend that the books we read form a pyramid with the base consisting of the majority of our reading material; that which doesn't stretch our reading skills. As we move up the pyramid, we encounter books that are increasingly difficult for us because, at the time we read them, our reading skills – how we understand a book and make it our own – are not at the level necessary to grasp all that is available from that book. If we return to those books at a later date they will not seem as difficult because our reading skills will have improved in the interim. At the peak of each of our individual pyramids is the handful of books that will improve our abilities each time we read them because there is much more there than can be grasped at a single skill level. This is not to say that any given book will be at the peak of everyone's pyramid. There are too many ways for books and people to relate to each other for that to be the case, and that's where the literary conversation comes into play.
Adler and Van Doren believe that great books - those that stand the test of time and consistently stretch the reading abilities of large numbers of people - engage in a conversation with us and, through us, with each other. In my experience, the most common form of this conversation is when an author quotes or alludes to another book in his own work. The book quoted or alluded to is generally one that is considered a classic. Some instances can be fairly extensive, as in Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle wherein the protagonist experiences a chapter-long nightmare based on Dante's The Inferno. A more subtle - and to me more satisfying - form of the conversation occurs when I recognize in different authors a common theme or concept expressed from differing perspectives. I read Thomas Pynchon's V. and Umberto Eco's Baudolino about a month apart. Despite the dissimilarity of the authors and the stories, a climactic scene in each of the books conveyed, from almost opposite perspectives, the point that the journey is often more important than the destination. The scene from V. gave me the perspective that sometimes, when what we've sought is almost within our grasp, we make our faith a lie so that we don't have to give up our quest by achieving its goal. Baudolino viewed the same point from the perspective that the achievement of a goal sometimes precipitates the loss of the spirit, drive, and fellowship that were the quest. I don't know if I happen to periodically recognize such similarities because of where I am in life at the time or if Serendipity flutters her wings at just the right moment, but such moments always elicit from me a softly uttered, "Wow!"