Reading notes: learning to listen

[Front and back cover of Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night: On Writing. Art on the cover: a painting by Augustus Leopold Egg, The Traveling Companion, 1862. Cain describes “an almost perfect symmetry between” the two girls “who look like sisters” in the painting. “One girl sleeps while the other reads,” Cain writes. “Each is resting in her own way. All of us need this kind of rest” (89).]

For me, Twitter was a space for connecting with others through reading. One of my favorite things about Twitter was that I encountered the thought and writing of countless others—both well-known and less so. I also used it as a space to post notes as I read. Sometimes I would start a thread about a book I was reading and post quotes or thoughts periodically while I was reading. In other words, I would pause in my reading to post a quote or comment on Twitter, as though I was jotting down a thought in the margins of the book or in a notebook. Notation was for me an affordance of the platform. Recently, for example, I read the revised and updated edition of Saidiya Hartman’s brilliant, groundbreaking Scenes of Subjection, which took me several days to read. I updated a Twitter thread while I read, which wasn’t a review of the book, but a practice of notation—a practice the book also enacted by including notations Hartman created in collaboration with Cameron Rowland. 

[The new edition of SCENES OF SUBJECTION includes notations that Hartman created with Cameron Rowland, including this one titled “Black Antagonism” “in homage to the sweetgrass basket makers of Edisto Island & what they are owed.” Image description: A black ink spiral bisected by a horizontal line on a gray white woven basket background. The title BLACK ANTAGONISM is at the top & the word PRACTICE is on the left at the opening of the spiral & the words GATHERING (above the line) & CRIMINALITY (below) are on the right. Notations from the text are contained in the spiral. At the center of the spiral/basket is the word Flight.]

Yet, like others, I have found Twitter to be a much less satisfying platform for this kind of engagement in recent months because of Elon Musk’s takeover and the changes he has made to the algorithm, verification process, content moderation, and accessibility. Not to mention his own promotion of right-wing conspiracy theories and fascist and transphobic content on the site. Many people I enjoyed following and engaging with have left the site and moved to other platforms like Mastodon. As of now, I don’t plan to leave, and I still haven’t set up a Mastodon account. Nonetheless, I have been trying to create a new way to post reading notes. Although it doesn’t feel as spontaneous as Twitter did, I thought I might play with using this blog for reading notes (it could also be that this is my first and last reading notes post!).

[Image description: Two books stand next to each other on a white shelf. On the left, Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night and on the right, much thicker and larger, Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. ]

What have I been reading? Right now, I have two books on the go—one long, one short. That’s not quite right because I started and finished the short book—Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night: On Writing—in a single day—yesterday. Thus, I read a whole other book while reading the long one—Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness. Starting and finishing a book while reading another book is not unusual; reading happens in multiple temporalities and spaces. Some books are gobbled up and others are savored slowly and still others are struggled with or put aside and returned to (or sometimes never returned to). Ozeki’s book is a book about the agency of things, including books, and there are books within the book that is The Book of Form and Emptiness. So, it feels right that I read a small book about reading and writing while reading a big book about a book becoming a book. In a section on how and when plants appear in fiction, Cain discusses Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora as not simply about plants but as including pieces “written by plants” (112). Cain writes that “the flowers in the book call out to other flowers, repeating their names, making contact, one to the other. Ackerman calls out to them too” (112). This echoes Ozeki’s story of a book being told from the perspective of the book itself as an object with agency to think and feel. Both texts—one thin and one thick—present practices of writing and reading as a kind of attentiveness to objects—that is, writing and reading as forms of listening. As Benny, the protagonist in Book of Form and Emptiness says, “Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen” (3). Reading notes are one way of learning to listen.

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