I’M GOING TO TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT A BOOK
Daniel Coleman and In Bed with the Word
(LETTERS • BOOKS)
BY JEREMY LUKE HILL
I’m going to tell you a story about a book.
A few months ago I attended a reading at The Bookshelf, an independent bookseller in Guelph. I didn’t recognize the name of one reader (Daniel Coleman, who was promoting his new title, Yardwork), but the other was my friend Shane Neilson, which was reason enough to go. It was a solid event, though too sparsely attended. Daniel’s reading was interesting. Shane’s performance was good as always, including selections from his recent collection, Dysphoria.
But my story is neither about Yardwork nor Dysphoria. It’s about another of Daniel’s titles, one that came up in conversation after the formal part of the event was over. I spoke to Daniel about some of the ideas he had raised in his performance, and Shane interjected that certain points about the spirituality of reading had been addressed more deeply in Daniel’s earlier book, In Bed with the Word. Intrigued, I pestered the staff at the Bookshelf, but they didn’t have a copy. Shane promised to loan me his, but by the time I walked home I’d forgotten all about the matter.
Shane, however, had not. The next time we met for lunch, he dropped me off his copy. A few mornings later I sat down with it on my front porch (escaping the unseasonable autumn heat of my house). Strangely, I felt compelled to read the whole text, front to back, out loud. I don’t read everything out loud (poetry, yes; philosophy, sometimes; fiction, rarely), but this book seemed to call for vocalization, so I obliged.
It didn’t take long to read – maybe two and a half hours – and it was worth every minute. Daniel’s little gem of a book gets into many of my favourite things – the posture of reading and reflection; the function of slowness in thinking; the difference between criticism and what Daniel calls discernment; the spiritual (not to say religious) significance of reading; and the necessity of good reading turning to moral action.
In Bed with the Word is a provoking and affirming read, but it is not (despite the implication of the previous paragraph) a work of philosophy, not in a rigorous sense. It’s far more the sort of book that I have come to call a meditation, something like Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, or (closer in time and space) Tim Lilburn’s Going Home. What I like about these kinds of books is how they take up their subject in much the way that Daniel’s book recommends – slowly, thoughtfully, leisurely. They take their time. They adopt a posture of humility and thankfulness before the acts of reading, thinking, and conversation.
What I find most valuable in Coleman’s book is a much-needed affirmation that there are others in the world who value reading like this. Many of the people I love (both in person and in print) espouse this posture toward reading. But I live in a place where the federal government’s Creative Canada initiative describes writers as “content creators”, where people write a novel’s worth of texts every year but need emojis to communicate simple emotions, and where public discourse has been reduced to hurling tweet-length slogans (now a whole 280 characters) at one another.
So it feels like a kind of intellectual cleansing breath for me to read Coleman saying,
Thoughtful, slow, critical, and appreciative reading is spiritually crucial in times like these. If we are to see beyond the cynicism of commodity culture, if we are to engage in the hard work of expanding democracy and producing citizens instead of consumers, we need to become affirmative and suspicious readers. So it does matter what we read, but it matters even more who we become by reading. (41)
I recognize in those words a posture before the act of reading that is something like my own, or that is at least enough like my own to create a sense of kinship in the midst of a culture where my relationship to reading is increasingly out of time and place. And while this sense of kinship may only be me looking for someone to confirm the biases that underlie the choices I’ve already made with my life – hell, I’ll take it. I’ll take someone who understands the necessity of reading that is both slower and more active than the swipe, swipe, swipe of the device, someone who understands how culturally transgressive and necessary that kind of reading can be, someone who can write.
We need to read texts that are smarter and wiser than we are on our own. We need to read texts that engage with the complex moral and ethical situations we often feel overwhelmed by, ones that open up aspects of human and natural life in the world that we could not possibly understand or perceive without guidance or, at least, wise company, We need to read works that draw out our surprise, call up our admiration, devastate our current assumptions, and call us to a wider experience than we currently have. We need to read works that are bigger than ourselves. (38)
Whatever else Coleman and I may agree or disagree about (and I don’t know him well enough to say), this understanding of what reading can and should be makes allies of us, along with those others, living and dead, who have affirmed the importance of slow and careful reading, of thoughtful and patient reflection, of learned and leisurely conversation, those like Ivan Illich in In the Vineyard of the Text, Helen Cixous in Coming to Writing, or Martin Heidegger in Poetry, Language, Thought.
And this is no small thing. I feel the necessity of these others more deeply all the time, the necessity of those who understand what Coleman means when he says, We need to eat the books we have been given. We need to consume them wholly, fully, and slowly, so that they become parts of our bodies, the very structure of our lives. (127)
This is why, even before I was quite finished In Bed with the Word, I knew it was the sort of book that needed to be on my shelf. I started walking down to The Bookshelf to get my own copy, rereading as I went. They still didn’t have it in stock, but I ordered it. There aren’t enough books like it out there.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press that publishes the literary culture of Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry called These My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. His criticism and poetry have appeared in places like The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Free Fall, The Goose, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.