commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on reading

I read a lot. Well, evidently. I'm an English professor to start with, and between cid, lection, the Guide to Baseball Fiction, and other miscellaneous projects that record my reading, there's a lot of evidence that I plow through books at an obsessive rate.

I read other things, too: magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes. I read junk mail. I read the pamphlets that dentists keep in their waiting rooms. I read abandoned half-torn flyers on the ground, covered in dirty footprints.

I read when I travel, no matter what the language. I try to navigate around Copenhagen or Prague, reading signage with the help of Indo-European cognates or half-remembered approximations of words my Slovak grandmother taught me.

I trust print more than I trust what people say. Print is fixed. It has authority and sincerity; people wouldn't go to the trouble of painting or printing words on things if they didn't think those words significant.

But in practice, I wonder if that's true. People put up signs all the time and leave them there long after any exigence is gone. Flyers expire (that's why they're trodden underfoot). Written warnings long outlast dangers. Instructions don't apply to the initiated. Referents disappear. Once, near Rome, I studied a bus timetable at great length, immersing myself in the instructions for buying tickets, for getting from A to B via C. Then someone explained that the bus timetable, instructions, and in fact the entire bus line itself, had shut down, leaving only textual vestiges. You had to take a train instead. But to take the train you had to talk to people, because there was no written information about it. I felt as if the world had turned on its head.

I work all day long at a keyboard, reading and writing text. To relax I read a book. To have even more fun, I go to see baseball games – and bring a book. I have stopped watching TV news. If a story appears on the Internet in video form, I click away till I find some text I can actually read.

My two serious hobbies are cooking and piano. I cannot cook without a recipe in front of me. I may ignore half the instructions, and substitute 90% of the ingredients, but I have to be reading while I'm cooking. Piano is worse. I can cook half a dozen simple things without reference to a text, but I don't know a single piano piece by heart. I have to have the lead sheet in front of me. Then I start to substitute rhythms and simplify chords. I have no ear for pitch (which is why I play piano, an instrument that other people tune for me), but I can do easy transpositions like B♭ to C – as long as I'm reading the melody off the page. Many, many musicians, even great ones, play beautifully without being able to read music. I play atrociously, but music, at a Dick-and-Jane level, I can read.

I'm a self-taught cook and self-taught piano player, and really, self-taught at nearly everything. Part of this is just stubbornness and impatience, social awkwardness, a sense that I know better than the instructor; part of it is that I'd rather learn from a text than a person. People are changeable and various; the text stays there. It exudes authority. To read is to get the official version.

When I travel, I wish that people came with subtitles. I can read French, Italian, German, and Spanish with only modest reliance on dictionaries – and not just newspaper stories or my Krimis, but the canonical reaches of national literatures. But ask me if I want a bag for the books I'm buying, and I'm helpless.

That's the inverse of the usual procedure, and indeed of how most people's brains work. We speak before we can read. Speaking is effortless; writing is a hard-won technology. Most people prefer listening and talking than to read or write; more and more these days, people speak into a device to generate text. Second- or third-language speakers happily chatter but are daunted by the prospect of reading. We think of the chatter as a prerequisite for reading: reading as the advanced class, speaking as the elementary.

I learned my languages in silence. When I was in grade school, I was fascinated by codes and writing systems. I got some books, flash cards, instructional packets, and a "verb wheel," and set about memorizing French conjugations. My learning materials didn't even indicate pronunciation. I didn't hear a single sentence of the language (this was decades before Internet audio, and even language tapes would have had to have been reel-to-reel). I went on to take French in junior high school and we still didn't hear any of the language. We filled in answers on work sheets. We learned about "French culture," which apparently consisted of berets and goat cheese.

In college, as innocent of the sound of French as ever, I got a little book from the library called Si nous lisions: "Let's read." I still have the book, but I must have bought a copy at some point, because it doesn't have a DATE DUE stamp from 1978 on it. "C'est en lisant qu'on apprend à lire," it says on the title page: You learn how to read by reading.

Si nous lisions takes this epigraph quite to heart. We start with a girl beckoning us into a co-ed French class.

Voilà la classe de français.
Voilà des élèves de la classe de français.
Voilà des filles de la classe. (1)
You can see why some modernist poets loved the rhythms of old schoolbooks (I think of Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III.) You can also see what a great pedagogy this is. We've just opened the book, we don't know what the heck is going on, we have no parallel text or translation. It's the immersion method applied to reading: here are the words; if you want to learn how to read them, just read them. And it's unapologetically graphocentric. There is no provision for speech drills or listening (though I suppose the book could be used that way). Before long one is reading short stories – repetitively composed, to be sure, but with some narrative interest – and by the end of the book you're conversant with wood-cutters and forest critters and village churches and even Napoleon, who makes an appearance for some reason. Two years later, I was passing graduate reading-comprehension courses in French.

Why didn't I just take French? Well, I was taking Latin and Greek, languages also taught silently (and spoken in their classical forms by no living person). A third language for credit seemed de trop. But I was also scared that I would have to go into a college French class and talk to people in a language I barely understood. The printed page is so forgiving. If you make a mistake you can go back. You can read the same page over and over, and the same story every day for two weeks.

So I approached the Romance languages the same way I approached Latin, silently; but with this difference: I never really studied their grammar, after my initial childhood flirtation with forms of être and avoir. I spent a week in Florence, heard some of the language, read Ignazio Silone's Fontamara on the train back to England, and puzzled out what I could of Italian going forward. I heard a lot of Spanish back in the US, naturally, especially in the form of Noticiero Univision, and set about reading newspapers and novels in Spanish with my Italian as a prop. German was different, much more a word-by-word slog, but accelerated by my suddenly hearing a great deal of the language in my 50s, and thus achieving a different dynamic: I can speak a little German, understand more, but paradoxically read less. High-literary German still defeats me, but I can read most Krimis.

That's the reason for this digression of an essay, really: I have experienced "foreign" cultures and literatures largely via detective novels, and primarily, within the detective novel, via the detective-inspector novel. Der Richter und sein Henker was the first novel I read in German. Maigret was my gateway to French literature, and decades later I have read all of them, and about half of Simenon's novels, which is a lot of novels. I applied my Italian to Andrea Camilleri, where it just about extends to comprehension of his strange hybrid Sicilian, an artificial literary creation that must be the bane of Palermo proofreaders.

Cochran, Grace, and Helen M. Eddy. Si nous lisions. Boston: Heath, 1930.