Robin Tremblay-McGaw: About Reading

About Reading

by Robin Tremblay-McGaw

Dear Reader:

“…Reader, where are you inside the future outside the past this letter is addressed to you…”—The Letters of Mina Harker

I recently re-read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this time in the new dexterous and luminous translation by Lydia Davis, a book very much about reading, and I’ve been thinking about what it means to read and all of the many different kinds of reading we do. We are swimming in words—on the internet, on billboards and placards; there’s email and snail mail, e-books, paperbacks, and hardcover books, magazines, journals and graphic novels. There’s scholarly and playful reading, book clubs, poetry reading, study groups, bedtime reading, airplane reading, reading for pleasure, reading for work, reading for instruction. Most of our reading these days is silent reading, a kind of technology in and of itself. At one time—though there is evidence that reading aloud and silently probably co-existed in the time of the Ancient Greeks—silent reading was a new technology, a source of astonishment to those used to reading aloud or being read to, and a means for establishing privacy as Augustine (354-430) reminds us in his Confessions. Here he writes of, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart seized the meaning, while he formed no words with his lips. Often, when we were present—since he did not restrict access to himself, and the names of visitors were not announced—we watched him read, silently as he always did, and after we had been sitting there in a prolonged silence (with none so cheeky as to break his spell) we withdrew. We supposed that he had so little time he could call his own, for restocking his mental store, beset as he was by the problems of others, that he resisted involvement in more such affairs. He might have avoided reading a passage out loud before an alert listener since he could be asked to explicate it, leading to discussion of nice points (113).

Silent reading was not unlike a kind of spell. Reading’s spell, so to speak, might be shared, communicated to others. Later in the Confessions (Book IV: Pontician’s Friends), Augustine writes of a visit Pontician made to the home of Augustine and his friend Alypius where Pontician discovers, much to his delight, a copy of the letters of Saint Paul. Pontician proceeds to tell a story about what happened to several men who had read a book about the life of Anthony: “As one of them began to read it he was stunned and took fire, and even as he read began to consider taking up such a [Christian] life himself” (172). “Book Five: The Garden,” details Augustine’s exile from himself, his struggle with “the higher delights of heaven” and “the joys of temporal existence” (179) and his eventual epiphanic conversion to Christianity, a conversion that occurs, as it did for the men in Pontician’s story, through the act of reading. Augustine explains: “No longer crying, I leaped up, not doubting that it was by divine prompting that I should open the book and read what first I hit on….`Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries…’The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced. I closed the book, marking the place with my finger or something, and spoke to Alypius with an altered countenance…” (182).

This potential spell-like quality of reading is part of its magic and risks. As New Narrative writer Robert Glück writes, “Any fiction wants you to become it–wants to take the place of your reflection in the mirror and calls for your recognition. It makes you become it like a magic spell–with words, with images, representations” (“My Community” 122).


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), a novel put on trial for obscenity, is about many things not the least of which is reading and the powers and risks of fiction. In Madame Bovary, Emma Rouault is a young provincial French woman of the 19th century who marries a country doctor, Charles Bovary. Emma’s marriage and life do not live up to her imagination, to the novels she has read. She takes lovers and comes to a famous and catastrophic end while one of her lovers marries and the other remains an eligible and amorous bachelor about town. Emma’s husband, Charles, is ultimately destroyed by Emma’s death and debt, and the realization of her infidelities. Their daughter ends up orphaned and in a work house.

Significantly, Charles Bovary is a man who is not a reader. As a young man at school, Charles “work[ed] conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and [took] great pains” in his lessons, though “he had almost no elegance in his constructions” (5). While Emma read novels at home and religious texts at the convent where she also listened to sermons, Charles’ grew up in a household with a father who “little concerned with literature, said it was not worth the trouble!” (7). Emma, on the other hand, “had read Paul and Virginia,” and Balzac and George Sand, and at the convent, “the metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, and marriage everlasting that recur in sermons stirred unexpectedly sweet sensations in the depths of her soul” (31). Emma is a reader; Charles is not. Instead of considering Emma’s reading of novels as a weakness, a liability, the source of her trouble, as many readers have, perhaps it is worth wondering what Charles might have understood or imagined had he read more. And what might have happened if Emma had practiced a critical and playful reading of the novels she encountered?


Maybe Emma and Charles needed a community of fellow readers to help them interpret their own narrative immersion? Bruce Boone’s short story, “The Truth About Ted” written in 1984, provides a model of a community of readers. “The Truth About Ted” is a story about storytelling, desire, interpretation, reading and misreading. The narrator, “Bruce” tells a retrospective series of stories about a community of gay men who encounter Ted, a young man who is “straight, but [whose] brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp” (1 [unpaginated]). After cataloging a series of readings of Ted’s life-–“He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even” –-the narrator asks “So why wasn’t he gay?” (1). Ted becomes an object of gossip for the community as they try to interpret his conflicting messages and their conflicted readings of his sexuality. Speculation about Ted’s sexuality traverses a varied terrain from Gilbert and Sullivan’s nineteenth-century comic or opéra féerie, a French ballet-opera based on fairy tales, Iolanthe, and the Marriage of Figaro, to Rimbaud, Rashomon, Taxi Driver, Lenox china, Sir Walter Scott, the Pope, Offenbach, and the local writing community. The story goes on to generate an orgy of illustrative misreadings and misinterpretations about Bruce’s friend and fellow interlocutor, Bob and his relationship with his former lover Ed, the function of gossip, and Ted’s sexuality. Ted’s situation also becomes an opportunity for literary exercise. The retelling, analysis and fabrication of Ted’s story produces a kind of truth in a fictional direction. Boone writes,

Finally our Ted discussions became technical exercises, occasions for testing our skills as writers. We wanted to be able to verbalize our perceptions of life’s ordinary events accurately, elegantly and truthfully so that other people would applaud us for our socially useful talents. Whatever else it was, Ted’s ‘problem’ was grist for our writer’s mill.

Not that this wasn’t fun. The more complex and detailed (and superficial!) our discussions became, the more it seemed to draw out our deepest feelings. These feelings had to do with ourselves, with the community of gay men and in some odd way with the possibilities of human life, happiness generally. Talking about Ted became a way of talking about the things we cared about most–things we couldn’t have talked about honestly and satisfyingly except as gossip (2).

The reader is strung along in this text as are the community members. Is Ted gay? Straight? The relationship of epistemophilia to erotics, seduction, reading and interpretation is literalized in the text. “The Truth about Ted” ultimately reveals the complexities of narrative, reading, and interpretation. About his relationship with Ed, in Boone’s story, Bob says, “‘It took years to understand that story,’ says Bob” (11), illustrating how meaning may be delayed and retroactive and understood through desire. Boone’s story also illustrates how point of view or narrative focalization may be multiple and contradictory. To Bob, Bruce says about Ted’s sexuality, “the way things stand now, unfortunately, we may never know the truth. Remember Rashomon, that 50s Japanese movie where there were all these possible versions of a the story and you couldn’t say any one of them was the right one?” (8).

“The Truth About Ted” ends up being about the truth about Bruce, or the truth about stories and their relationship to life, or the truth of the self’s continual misrecognition of its own specular image, or the ways in which the subject is caught up in the cogs of narrative, language and desire. Here, the mirror of the story suddenly turns back on its author and readers. It reveals a reflection that isn’t so much Ted’s story, but is the community’s, Bruce’s, and the readers’. If at the close of the story’s first paragraph we read: “It’s his life, after all, not yours” (1), by the end of the piece, we discover that perhaps it is not Ted’s life, but Bruce’s and maybe not Bruce’s but ours.


For a number of contemporary writers (Tisa Bryant, Maggie Zurowski, Harryette Mullen, Dodie Bellamy, Yedda Morrison, Kathy Lou Schultz, Rob Halpern, etc.,) at the forefront of their work are the strategic and highly articulate and conscious acts of intertextuality and reading–in all of its forms and targets or objects: the daily news, novels, songs, visual art, etc. Jocelyn Saidenberg’s epigraphs for her book, Negativity, serve as markers in a labyrinth of other texts for readers to turn to while we dwell in negativity, however capably or incapably. Negativity, a text that is founded on the intertextual, advocates that entering the texts it has included in its textual body and out of which it is partially constituted, is productive and generative, a form of nourishing if also sometimes violent social participation, as even a meal may be. This intertextual world is predicated on relation and proposes in its composition, the selection of its companions at table and sources, each of which carry with them highly specific and yet socially located histories, cultural milieus, and temporalities. At the same time, this intertextual world is conscious of its relation to a writing machine, an alimentary canal, the person at the keyboard or with a notebook, someone who has a body and relationships to disparate categories of delimited identities with respect to specific cultures, languages, diets. These coordinates are always already in relation to and with a cacophony of other cultures, ideological systems, empires of signs and worlds of discourse.

For her book, Negativity, Jocelyn Saidenberg takes one of its three epigraphs from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers:

I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, then the universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: that is how I see the end of the world.

Rereading Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers provides useful and delicious rubrics for approaching Saidenberg’s book. Doing so, the reader discovers that Saidenberg, of course, has read Sartre’s introduction to Our Lady. Like Genet’s thief, she steals and reworks lines from it, and we readers are the voyeurs who watch her do it while we participate in its elaborate staging. A portion of the text from Sartre’s “the reader will open Our Lady of the Flowers, as one might open the cabinet of a fetishist, and find there, laid out on the shelves, like shoes that have been sniffed at and kissed and bitten hundreds of times, the damp and evil words that glean with excitement” (3) turns up in “Not enough Poison” in the final lines from “Bird of Prey”: “No wonder the horror. No wonder the panting excitement. No wonder. No wonder. So I as shoes that have been sniffed and bitten and kissed hundreds of times” (44). Isolated, undigested bits of charged diction from Sartre turn up, including pestiferous, “pestiferous doesn’t expiate the ghastly or contrite” (44). Sartre’s, “it is the abstract instant that congeals it into an exploding but static beauty” seems to mutate into Saidenberg’s stunning and contradictory image “the sparrow congeals into disintegration in release” (44). We read Saidenberg reading Sartre reading Genet. And elsewhere in the text we might find Henry James, Barbara Guest, or even Stendhal. The writer thus becomes Genet’s or James’ texts and writing. If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, write, copy, ingest and digest.

In the Language & Thinking Program, one of the practices we regularly engage in is reading—silently and alone or in a group, aloud in small and large groups, in unison or individually, in rounds or in playful interruptions and overlappings that “explode” the text allowing us to enter and revise it. I find these communal forms of reading to be nourishing, a means for critical engagement, and great fun. All these different ways to “voice,” “embody,” even “ingest” and “digest” a text return reading and literature to the social where words, sentences, meaning, and form might be shared, puzzled over, taken apart, questioned, dissected, celebrated, revealing that there is more to reading, and more at stake, than learning to recognize words.

Further reading: See for readings by Robin of Madame Bovary and “The Truth about Ted.” A full review of Saidenberg’s Negativity can be found in ON: Contemporary Practice 2 available at:


Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions. Trans. Gary Wills. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press Inc. 1998.

Boone, Bruce. The Truth About Ted. Berkeley: exempli gratia, 1984.
You can read this text online at:

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Viking Press, 2010.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Glück, Robert. “My Community.” Discontents: New Queer Writers. Ed. Dennis Cooper. New York: Amethyst Press, 1992: 119-124.

Saidenberg, Jocelyn. Negativity. Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2006.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Introduction. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963: 1-49.