Just last Sunday, I read as we rode the E train uptown. Having lost interest in the ads for hemorrhoid laser surgeries, I had brought along a collection of Raymond Carver's short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I finished the first story in the few stops between Canal Street and Penn Station. I paused only a moment. My wife said, "Amazing, isn't it?" I just nodded. It was.
Later, while we were walking in the park, on the Eastside just north of the zoo, a jogger lunged toward us at a good pace. His stride was strong but broken. He was crippled. Cerebral palsy, we thought, saying little else. After, we took the shortcut to the Westside. Soon, he came again, having already circled most of the six-mile circuit. Then, my wife said, "I've seen him running here for years. Think of what it takes." I did. I imagined a solitary life, ordered around chaotic limbs, a life he ran with dignity among hundreds of beautiful bodies on roller blades. She had her thoughts too. We said a little, but less than you would suppose.
Reading is like that. A relatively few abstracted marks or events evoke worlds others already know. But how does it work? When I was a little boy, I asked such a question about the radio. How was it that each weekday evening at 6:15 I could tune in Tom Mix on the Magnavox console in the safe, far corner of the living room? Though I have since learned many theories about reading, I still do not understand either it or the radio. Somehow, something is broadcast in the air. We get it. Others do, too, even those with whom we share no intimacies at all. In a blurb on the back of the book of stories I read on the subway, Frank Kermode says, "Carver's fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch." Though Raymond Carver was among the masters of this sort of writing, much the same can be said of all writing. It succeeds at whatever it does in spite of the sparseness of its means relative to the worlds evoked.
The difference between reading and radio listening, though, is that reading seems to have become an activity of no necessary limits. Among the people I talk to in the school where I teach, it is common to refer to the analysis of many different sorts of situations as a "reading." I once heard a little story in which the term was used in such a way: At a dinner party several years before, a guest had delivered a crude ethnic insult that angered and embarrassed most of those at the table. In a response calculated to set things straight without disrupting the dinner, the hostess gave him what the teller of the story described as "a postmodern reading of the anti-Semitism in his remark." Apparently, that reading did little of its intended good. The old insult was still raw. Just the same, in this case a "reading" is a vastly more complex communication than whatever it was that allowed my wife to understand what I was feeling about a story we had both read and a man we saw. If "reading" is an activity inclusive not just of books and events in the park but even of delicate retorts to gratuitous in-