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“Readability” as freedom from the actual sensation of reading

In her essay on Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, Claudia Roth Pierpoint writes:

The much remarked “readability” of the book must have played a part in this smooth passage from the page to the screen, since “readability” has to do not only with freedom from obscurity but, paradoxically, with freedom from the actual sensation of reading [emphasis added]—of the tug and traction of words as they move thoughts into place in the mind. Requiring, in fact, the least reading, the most “readable” book allows its characters to slip easily through nets of words and into other forms. Popular art has been well defined by just this effortless movement from medium to medium, which is carried out, as Leslie Fiedler observed in relation to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “without loss of intensity or alteration of meaning.” Isabel Archer rises from the page only in the hanging garments of Henry James’s prose, but Scarlett O’Hara is a free woman.

Well put. I wish Pierpoint would come out with another book. But I think this sort of book is out of fashion nowadays. There are zillions of uncollected book reviews and literary essays that I’d love to see in book form (the hypothetical collected reviews of Anthony West, Alfred Kazin, and many others) but it seems like it won’t ever happen.

9 Comments

  1. todd. says:

    This is perfectly analogous to the claim of “drinkability” by manufacturers of light beer. It’s “drinkable” in that they have done as much as possible to make it tasteless. But you won’t derive any pleasure from drinking it.

  2. K? O'Rourke says:

    Sounds like the kind of graphs I would like to learn how to make!
    (wihout losing any _information_)

  3. Donald A. Coffin says:

    Well, it’s not everything, but it is a selection:

    Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings

  4. Phil says:

    Ironically, I find Pierpoint’s passage to be not very readable.

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      To be fair to Pierpoint, this passage was in the midst of an essay with lots of specific detail; I’m just pulling out the most abstract part. In the context of the longer essay, it all came out naturally.

      • Phil says:

        It’s not the meaning that makes it hard to read — I get her point well enough. It’s all these arresting little quirks like “the tug and traction of words as they move thoughts into place in the mind” and “he most “readable” book allows its characters to slip easily through nets of words and into other forms.” It’s not necessarily bad writing but it is definitely writing that draws attention to itself.

  5. Kaiser says:

    I enjoy the various collections by Tim Parks. They’re a bit hard to find but they are available.

    Isn’t the highest form of “readability” a form of “art concealing art”? In music, it’s a premeditated piece that sounds like an improvisation.

    I also sometimes wonder especially in academic circles, we may confuse effort with rigor so that if an author does a really great job explaining a difficult concept, now the concept sounds so simple one no longer considers it “deep”.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    I’d nominate Evelyn Waugh’s best novels as combining high readability with superb quality of prose.