Careful Writing, Careful Reading

One of the minor irritations of life is to be misunderstood. Cue downcast eyes and heavy sighs. Of course, there are times when we have no one to blame but ourselves. I am often mortified when I realise I have expressed myself ambiguously or made an allusion few will understand. Sloppy writing suggests sloppy thinking, and the world is full of it. Why should anyone contribute more? At other times, I feel rather more combative. If people won’t take the trouble to read the whole of a post before commenting, or if they miss my carefully-nuanced argument, should I explain myself more fully? Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. The (lapsed) historian in me wants precise writing; the monastic in me wants precise reading, but it seems never the twain shall meet.

This month we have lost three fine historians: John Bossy, Lisa Jardine and David Cesarani. All three enriched life with their historical writing, which was carefully researched, closely argued and, in most cases, beautifully and perceptively written. How easy it is to miss all that by skimming over their pages or taking chunks out of context! We all have a tendency to speed-read, but there is a case to be made for giving time to our reading. Scripture and poetry do not reveal their riches all at once; nor does history. Unless we are geniuses, slow reading is essential to historical understanding. It means allowing time for the comfortable chatter of the footnote, pausing while we digest a new idea or make a new connection. They are part and parcel of thinking historically — grace-notes in the business of living.


4 thoughts on “Careful Writing, Careful Reading”

  1. I grew up as a speed reader. I couldn’t wait to get to the end of a book a night (mostly Enid Blyton books, so it wasn’t too great an ask). I struggled with the transition to ‘adult’ books because most of them are obviously much longer and more complex than the books I had been reading and they demand more time and attention. I’ve recently started savouring books and have found that the joy of reading and of words has come back to me. I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be much of a reader as an adult, but it seems I just had to adjust my reading habits a little. I do find myself reading a lot of non-fiction, particularly history, these days and I find great joy in walking through a book instead of running.

  2. Using short bursts of text on a screen create even more oportunities to be misunderstood. I have lost count of the number of times I have sent an email which someone felt had a “tone” which, even on rereading, I can not detect…

    I dislike phone conversations as I miss the subtle cues from facial features and body language.

    Having said this I need to listen more carefully and give people the benefit of the doubt if their communication seems to aggravate me. Always in a rush I find Lectio difficult but rewarding…

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. It’s made me recognise what a gift we have been given in being able to communicate and receive that communication, richly. I very much enjoy reading and these words from Australian writer David Malouf may resonate with readers of this blog:

    “Reading is such a solitary activity: we can only fully respond to a book, enter into its world and allow it to uncover itself to us, by an act of the solitary self. That is why the relationship between the reader and the writer, as he exists on the page, is so intimate, so individual. But it is an experience we share with others, a whole invisible company, whose reading-selves have led them in the same direction and to the same page.”

    We need to cherish the gift of writing and reading.

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