How to fertilize the salad

Eric has a reading post up, and it suggested some thoughts to me, which turned out to be thoughts I want to expand on a bit, so I took the bus back.

Typically, in my magpie way, I zoomed in on the meta part of what he said at the expense of the substantive part. Never mind. The substantive part is also interesting, but for the moment – it’s about reading and thinking and blogging.

Eric’s introductory meta:

As usual, I am trying to read two or three books at one time, and that means I have several different lines of thought running in my head all at the same time. Lately, this has been especially true, since I went through a flurry of book buying which will lead to bankruptcy if I don’t take myself in had. All this diverse reading doesn’t really help a lot with blogging, because I have a tendency to jump back and forth along the trains of thought that occupy my mind, and what comes out sometimes looks a bit more like a word salad then carefully thought through argument — and then, of course, it simply gets trashed.

I do that too, but I have a different take on it, which I started to say there.

I don’t altogether agree with you that reading several books at once doesn’t help with blogging – if only because I think blogging is an ideal medium for the scrappy, the incomplete, the in progress, the brief – for the process of thought itself. Maybe that’s just me. I’ve always liked diaries, letters, notebooks – all kinds of writing that’s pre-publication or entirely separate from publication.

But that’s actually not the only reason. Another is that I think reading several books in parallel is a good thing to do, because it’s a way to see connections that one otherwise wouldn’t. Blogging is a way to record this kind of seeing so that others may be able to see it too.

You know? For instance you’re reading something about neuroscience and morality, and you’re also re-reading a novel by George Eliot. There can be echoes and parallels that you wouldn’t see if you weren’t reading both at roughly the same time – i.e. one in the morning and the other in the evening. And any combination of that kind is going to be unique, and it’s not usually the kind of thing that finds its way into finished, polished, published writing, because it’s too scrappy and bitty and small. Blogs are perfect for the scrappy and bitty and small!

Or you can be reading about the gendered society (in The Gendered Society by Michael Kimmel) in parallel with a startlingly witty, acerbic novel republished in the 80s by Virago, The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. Honey, there are some echoes.

In The Pastor’s Wife for instance there’s a brisk, throwaway bit from the pov of the protagonist’s father the Bishop of Redchester.

For there was the constant irritation going on of the affairs of the diocese getting into a more hopeless disorder. All that time she was away guiltily gadding, and now all this time she was not away but unavailable until she should have utterly repented, his letters were piling themselves up into confused heaps, and his engagements were a wilderness in which he wandered alone in the dark. The chaplain and the typist did what they could, but they had not been with him so long as his daughter and were not possessed of the mechanical brainlessness that makes a woman so satisfactory as a secretary. His daughter, not having what might be called actual brains, was not troubled by thought. [p 97]

Cross-fertilization, you could call it. Eric calls it word salad – but hey, from cross-fertilized word salad you eventually get enriched thinking, and the process is interesting to watch. That’s my view anyway.


  1. kevinalexander says

    I have books that I have been reading for thirty years, started at the beginning, pushed a little farther in and each time it’s as though I’m reading a different book. The words haven’t changed but my mind has on account of the other half dozen books that I have going.

  2. leftwingfox says

    Unfortunately, the metaphor immediately resulted in the phrase “shit salad” forming in my brain.

    So thank you for that.

    Still, it’s an excellent point. Those connections are often the essence of creativity, both in scientific discovery as well as the arts.

  3. Claire Ramsey says

    I have been known to construct little reading units for myself, to line up several books about one topic, say “life in Nebraska portrayed in biographies,” and read them at the same time, hoping for the salad to make itself. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    Other times, it’s just plain good luck to get the salad. Sometimes my mental feelers reach out and grab something out of the book I’m reading, then feel around in the dark for a few other things to tie up together.

    I say read as many books at the same time as you can. My memory is sievelike for many things but amazingly grabby for other stuff. I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in this.

  4. bad Jim says

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is always blogging while slogging through books. It’s practically an art form.

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