Reading as a Craft

This man, this artisan, had seventeen waistcoats to arrange in his window, with as many sets of cufflinks and neckties surrounding them. He spent about eleven minutes on each: we timed him. We left, tired out, after the sixth item. We had been there for one hour in front of that man, who would come out to see the effect after having adjusted these things one millimeter. Each time he came out he was so absorbed that he did not see us. With the dexterity of a fitter, he arranged his spectacle, brow wrinkled, eyes fixed, as if his whole future life depended on it. When I think of the carelessness and lack of discipline in the work of certain artists, well-known painters, whose pictures are sold for so much money, we should deeply admire this worthy craftsman, forging his own work with difficulty and conscientiousness, which is more valuable than those expensive canvases; they are going to disappear, but he will have to renew his work in a few days with the same care and the same keenness. Men like this, such artisans, have a concept of art--one closely tied to commercial purposes, but one that is a plastic achievement of a new order and the equivalent of existing artistic manifestations, whatever they may be.

Fernand Léger (emphasis in original)

This craftsmanship, storytelling, was actually regarded as a craft by Leskov himself. "Writing," he says in one of his letters, "is to me no liberal art but a craft.". . . In fact one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman's relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Walter Benjamin

Fernand Léger, writing in 1924, and Walter Benjamin, in 1936, offer us two ways into the complex relationship between art and craft. For Benjamin craft was a quality to be found in the work of a nineteenth century storyteller like Nikolai Leskov, who drew consciously upon the methods and materials of an earlier age. The verbal arts, Benjamin felt, were suffering in an age dominated by "information," rootless factoids that threatened both the earlier modes of "storytelling" (epic and tale) and also the forms that had replaced them--the novel and the short story. His brilliant essay, "The Storyteller," from which my second epigraph is taken, is a nostalgic celebration of Leskov and the "incomparable aura about the storyteller" (109). Léger, on the other hand (in the first epigraph), sees in the efforts of a window-dresser in a department store a craftsmanship that calls into question the careless work of some contemporary artists.

I do not think that the German critic and the French painter are actually very far apart, here, on the value of craftsmanship. Both admired it and were concerned about its survival in an era dominated by "commercial purposes" and "information." And both were keenly aware of the way that art and craft might be inimical to one another. But Benjamin saw craft as something inevitably doomed in an age of information and mechanical reproduction, while Léger found it still alive in both mechanical work and commodity culture. Léger, of course, in his own work with paint, metal, ceramics, and film, tried to maintain that craftsman's ethos--tried and largely succeeded, I would say, making him one of the most admirable of the modernists. Different as their views of craft may be, however, both writers value what is solid, useful, and conscientious in craft (their adjectives), though they find it in different places. They were thinking of things from the producer's point of view rather than the consumer's, but their discussions imply a notion of consumption, a solid and conscientious way of reading verbal and visual texts that I wish to call--for reasons that should be apparent already--"crafty."

In this book, then, I shall be proposing that we all try to become crafty readers, that we learn to read with the care and keenness displayed by Léger's window-dresser, and that we also learn to take seriously the work of such crafty artisans as Edna Millay, Norman Rockwell, Raymond Chandler, and J. K. Rowling. One becomes a crafty reader by learning the craft of reading. I believe that it is in our interest as individuals to become crafty readers, and in the interest of the nation to educate citizens in the craft of reading. The craft, not the art. Art is high, craft is low. Art is unique; it can't be taught. Craft is common; it can be learned. There are virtuoso readers, who produce readings that are breathtakingly original, but the more original these readers become, the less they remain readers. Their readings become new works, writings, if you will, for which the originals were only pretexts, and those who create them become authors. I am not interested in producing such readings myself, nor do I believe that anyone can teach others to produce them. What can be studied, learned, and taught is the craft of reading. This book is about that craft. It is an attempt to explain and embody ways of reading that anyone can learn. It is not, however, a textbook on the craft of reading. I would not wish to suggest that reading this book will turn anyone into a crafty reader. I am hoping, merely, to persuade my readers of the existence of such a craft, and to show how it differs from some other ways of reading, such as that advocated by the New Critics or that which I call "fundamentalist." I also hope to show how this approach to reading will allow us to bring forward for serious consideration certain crafty texts that are now largely outside the boundaries of literary study. To this end I shall spend a good deal of time talking about the ways in which readers "situate" texts, and about the role of literary "genres" in the process of situation.

What is the craft of reading? As with any craft, reading depends on the use of certain tools, handled with skill. But the tools of reading are not simply there, like a hammer or a chisel; they must be acquired, through practice. The essays in this book are all attempts to demonstrate how some of these tools work, and to show how they may be acquired. I have arranged them in an order that makes sense to me, but they need not be read in that order. They will, I hope, support one another, regardless of the order in which they are read. In writing them I have been trying to sharpen my own command of the craft of reading-to become a craftier reader-and to make the practice of the craft-the tricks of the trade, so to speak-more open to use by those who, like myself, still hope to improve as readers. I am well aware that reading now extends beyond the written word into various other kinds of verbal and visual texts, but I have not tried to push too far into those domains, being uncertain whether my own craft would justify this.

New media, in any case, do not exactly replace or eliminate old ones. They take their places in a world of communication; they require realignments of that world; they borrow from the older ways of composing texts; and they change-often enrich-the older forms themselves. The arrival of new media often generates a gap between accepted or "high" texts and those new texts regarded with suspicion or simply labeled as "low." The popular drama in Shakespeare's time was regarded as low and only gradually achieved high status. Following a similar trajectory, the novel began as a low form and was gradually elevated to the level of literary art. More recently, we find film following the same pattern. But the rise of so many new media, so recently, has threatened to leave us with a deep gap between what is thought of as "high" art or literature, on the one hand, and "mass" or "popular" culture, on the other. Without rejecting the notion that some texts are indeed better than others (for some purposes), I will assert here, and maintain throughout this book, that valuable texts are to be found in all media, and in many genres within those media. I will also assume that we make a mistake if we equate the difficult and the obscure with the valuable-a mistake frequently made, especially by teachers and professors of literature. But now it is time for me to start making my own mistakes. I hope you will follow me and pick me up if I stumble.