Where do writers learn their best moves? They use a technique that Roy Peter Clark calls X-ray reading, a form of reading that lets you penetrate beyond the surface of a text to see how meaning is actually being made. In The Art of X-Ray Reading, Clark invites you to don your X-ray reading glasses and join him on a guided tour through some of the most exquisite and masterful literary works of all time, from The Great Gatsby to Lolita to The Bluest Eye, and many more. Along the way, he shows you how to mine these masterpieces for invaluable writing strategies that you can add to your arsenal and apply in your own writing. Once you've experienced X-ray reading, your writing will never be the same again.
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About the Author
A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited nineteen books on writing and journalism, including The Art of X-Ray Reading, How to Write Short, Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, and Help! for Writers. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he is considered a garage-band legend.
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The Art of X-Ray Reading
How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Roy Peter Clark
All rights reserved.
Power of the Parts
Like so many others, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby in high school — just about the time the Beatles arrived in America. Because I went to high school on Long Island, I was curious about F. Scott Fitzgerald's transformation of Great Neck and Sands Point into West Egg and East Egg. Beyond that, the book was lost on me. I lacked the experiences of impossible love and incalculable wealth. I had not yet acquired the critical capacity to appreciate the book's lyrical sentences. When a teacher ranked it near the top of modern American novels, my response was, "You mean that's the best we can do?"
As I was writing this chapter, I heard National Public Radio book critic Maureen Corrigan testify to a similar lack of enthusiasm for Gatsby in her first high school reading, an opinion since transformed by her more than fifty readings of the book. Her experience led her to write a perceptive tribute to Gatsby, entitled So We Read On. I have at least forty — four readings to go until I catch up with her!
With age and multiple readings comes insight. What do I see in the novel that I was blind to fifty years earlier? The author remains the same (still dead!); the text-in spite of disagreements among editors about the author's intentions-has been established (very much alive); so I, the reader, become the X factor. Or should I call it the X-ray factor? One change in me is significant. I now think of myself as a writer. What follows, then, is a practical reading of the text-not a grad student's or lit teacher's or postmodern scholar's-but a writer's reading of The Great Gatsby. What can I learn from the novel that I can apply to my next story? How can the book become for me-and for you-a mentor text?
I could choose countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby's mansion. I could have great fun picking at the author's naming of people, places, and things; connecting the images related to eyes-from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl — eyed man at Gatsby's funeral; discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land and the wasteland, as experienced in the "valley of ashes"; studying Fitzgerald's intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective greed and renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman.
Instead of those, I'll start with the end, one of the most revered passages in literary history, so revered that the 2013 movie version spelled it out on the screen. To fully appreciate it, you might borrow a trick from my old friend Steve Lovelady and copy it out by hand. "I want to get the feel of what it's like to have that prose flowing through my fingers," he would say. This passage is four paragraphs long, the 273 words coming from narrator Nick Carraway, who stretches out on the shore of Long Island Sound and gazes out at the water:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter-to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Before I answer the big structural question-where did that ending come from, and how does it fit in with the whole? — I want to spend some time with its fine details, an X-ray reading meant to discover some of the strategic treasures inside, treasures that could brighten the work space of any writer.
COMMON OBJECTS WITH DEEP MEANINGS
One of my first great literature teachers was a Catholic priest named Bernard Horst, who taught us two key lessons that have stuck with me since high school. "Boys," he said during a reading of a Robert Frost poem, "sometimes a wall is more than a wall. Sometimes it's a symbol." But when we started seeing symbols everywhere, he cautioned: "Careful, boys: a symbol need not be a cymbal."
So is that ferryboat out on Long Island Sound a symbol? If so, it does not crash or sizzle in our consciousness like a drummer's cymbal in a jazz band. That ferryboat is much more subtle stuff-a half symbol, perhaps, or maybe just a normal object that in the context of the story is fraught with connotation.
Rides on ferries remain part of the life of many who live on Long Island and in the New York City metropolitan area. The Staten Island Ferry may be the most famous, but ferryboats still carry passengers across the Long Island Sound from towns such as Port Jefferson and Orient Point to places in Connecticut.
The problem that confronts the curious reader, of course, is that the ferryboat is also an ancient literary type. In Greek and Roman mythology-and in Dante's Inferno-the dead (and sometimes the living) travel via ferry down into the underworld, also known as Hades, or hell. The ferryman has a name, Charon, and, if you pay him, he will carry you in his boat across the river Styx, which divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. In ancient Greece, coins were placed in the mouth or on the eyes of a dead person to provide "cab fare" for the journey into the next world.
In other legends a dead hero-King Arthur, for instance — is placed on a boat, loaded with riches for the next world, then buried or cast off to sea.
Let's remember what precedes this passage: the murder of Gatsby and a depressing funeral, attended by a handful of people. The appearance of the ferryboat at the beginning of this passage strikes a somber note. It denotes, then connotes, a journey through darkness, the end of life as we know it, followed by transport into an uncertain future.
Islands are celebrated in life and in literature, perhaps because great cultural centers-Japan, England, and Manhattan-are islands. Think of all the jokes and riddles and stories you know about being lost or abandoned on a desert island, from Robinson Crusoe to Gilligan's Island. Think Treasure Island. Think Lord of the Flies. And remember that, according to John Donne, no man-or woman-is an island.
Islands are natural microcosms, little worlds inhabited by a limited number of players, whose actions, values, and behaviors come to represent universal conflicts. Long Island is a very distinctive island shaped like a fish, more than one hundred miles long and twenty miles wide. It takes up most of the distance between the Empire State Building and the Montauk lighthouse. It is so big, in fact, that it does not serve as much of a small symbolic universe for Fitzgerald. His preference is to go smaller, not with one but two miniaturized worlds in conflict: East Egg and West Egg, where old — money and new — money interests clash.
Like many great writers, Fitzgerald is tuned in to what I might call symbolic geography, not just in the settings of the two Eggs but also in the journey (by auto or train) from Long Island to Manhattan through an industrial wasteland referred to as the valley of ashes. The road between mansions and skyscrapers turns out to be a journey through the underworld, a descent into hell. Only bad things happen to characters who end up there or pass through it.
The simple mention of the Dutch sailors, European explorers who settled New Amsterdam, evokes the mixed heritage of Western history, in which the "new found land" is imagined as a paradise found, a place of endless territory, wealth, and possibility. It will flower for the new settlers trying to escape their pasts in the Old World, but the virgin land will be deflowered by violence and greed.
Authors have lots of ways to help the reader understand what they think is really important. They do it by word choice, for example, or word order. They do it by repetition. Smokey Robinson wrote "My Girl" for the Temptations and created such an effective lyrical hook that the phrase is repeated more than thirty times in a song that lasts less than three minutes. Yes, damn it, he's talkin' about "my girl, my girl, my girl ..."
I learned this lesson-call it the echo effect-in my first college literature class. We were reading one of those thick Russian novels, and our professor asked us to analyze a passage in which a character was disturbed by a fly. I remember going through the novel looking for some clue to unlock this passage, and the best I could do was make reference to an earlier passage in which another fly had made a cameo appearance. "To understand what was happening in this passage," I offered in class, "I thought I might compare it to the passage where the fly made an earlier landing." That was it. That's what the teacher was hoping we would discover.
At first glance, "green breast of the new world" appears to be Fitzgerald's synonym for the original unspoiled America, colonized by the European explorers and settlers. But there is something suggestive and troubling about that "green breast." There is an immediate tension, a rub, between the two words. A green breast is a surreal, almost unnatural thing-unless we are talking about Dalí paintings or cartoon ogres. Then we must ask, where do those words come from in the novel? What are their antecedents? The color green is easy, with its evocation of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. That light is what T. S. Eliot would call the objective correlative, the object that correlates to all of Gatsby's regrets, dreams, and aspirations. Breast is more troubling. Is the word associated with the female objects of desire in the book-Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker? Early on, Nick describes the athletic Miss Baker as "small — breasted." But much later-and more shockingly and memorably-comes an image of violence and catastrophe, the effects of the hit — and — run killing of Myrtle Wilson: "... when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath." That phrase occurs on page 137 of my edition, late enough to be well remembered by a reader who encounters that "green breast" only forty — three pages later.
EXAMPLE TO MEANING
In 1939 a language teacher in Chicago published a book for his college students that remains a classic. The author was S. I. Hayakawa, an expert on semantics (the meanings of words), and the book was Language in Action. In that book, Hayakawa introduced to American readers a concept called "the ladder of abstraction." The basic notion was that you could think of a word or phrase-his was "Bessie the cow"— and you could place it near the bottom of the ladder, where words referred to concrete, specific things: "Sadie's wedding ring" or "the broken headlight on Karen's dark green 1966 Mustang convertible" or "that 1956 Mickey Mantle baseball card-the one with the bent corner-that Roy kept in an old shoe box in his attic for more than fifty years." These are objects that appeal to the senses. Gatsby's yellow car, Daisy's green light, Myrtle's bloody breast-all these would be placed at the bottom of Hayakawa's ladder.
What happens in life and literature, of course, is that these objects come to mean something more. Over time, they may take on new meanings. Perhaps the author chooses them to help the reader reach a higher understanding. Even without such authorial intention, the text can come to mean something at a higher level of abstraction. A hundred readers may come away with a hundred different ideas.
This passage in Gatsby begins with a sweeping recollection of the "vanished trees" that once seduced the European settlers with their majesty, beauty, and fecundity. This land will be ravaged by those settlers; the trees will disappear to make way for Gatsby's extravagant mansion; the natural world will be despoiled by the artificial.
The narrative suddenly gains altitude, the language soaring to the level of ideas, with phrases such as "transitory enchanted moment," "aesthetic contemplation," and "capacity for wonder." Such phrases stand atop the ladder of abstraction, inviting the reader to strive for some higher understanding of the characters in this particular story and their connection to the larger, deeper themes of American history and culture.
It astonishes me how Fitzgerald manages to compress the complex and contradictory concerns of American history and culture in a single passage. His main vehicle for this is a constant movement-from concrete to abstract, from particular to general. After offering us a contemplation of what the sailors must have felt when they encountered the islands and forests of the New World, the narrator connects that sense of "wonder" (and repeats the word) by recalling what Gatsby must have felt when he looked out at Daisy's dock and saw the green light.
Gatsby is seduced by a dream: that he can go back in time, erase the past, and begin again in the arms of Daisy. It is interesting to note the collision of colors here, the proximity of the green light to the blue lawn. Shouldn't the lawn be green? Isn't grass green? Not in Gatsby's world. In his world of unnatural aspiration, the grass must be greener than green. It must be blue, as blue as the blood of aristocrats.
In rereading my 2004 edition of the book, published by Scribner, I thought I found a misprint: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future ..." Orgastic? Is that even a word? I checked an earlier edition and found the word as I remembered it. Not orgastic but orgiastic. I looked up orgastic and found that it was an obscure synonym for orgasmic. It carried a meaning beyond sexual pleasure-a higher and deeper level of ecstasy. Did Gatsby believe in an ecstatic future?
According to Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, the author indeed meant orgastic and discussed it with his editor, Maxwell Perkins. But in 1941, editor Edmund Wilson thought the word was an error and replaced it with orgiastic, which became the version known to a half century of readers. Fortunately, orgastic has been restored and was the word spoken by Nick Carraway in the movie. Why fortunately? Not just because it was the word the author intended but also because it is just the right word. Given the Jazz Age orgies of sex, booze, and excess described in the novel and magnified in the movie, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that Gatsby believed in an orgiastic future. But we know that he threw those parties for one reason and one reason only: to find Daisy-or to create the circumstances in which she could find him. It was a much more personal ecstasy he believed in and was striving for.
Excerpted from The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark. Copyright © 2016 Roy Peter Clark. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Roy Peter Clark,
Introduction: Where Writers Learn Their Best Moves,
1. X-raying Gatsby: Power of the Parts,
2. X-raying Lolita: Words at Play,
3. X-raying Hemingway and Didion: Words Left Out,
4. X-raying James Joyce: Language as Sacrament,
5. X-raying Sylvia Plath: Jolt of Insight,
6. X-raying Flannery O'Connor: Dragon's Teeth,
7. X-raying "The Lottery": Piling Stones,
8. X-raying Madame Bovary: Signs of Inner Life,
9. X-raying Miss Lonelyhearts and A Visit from the Goon Squad: Texts Within Texts,
10. X-raying King Lear and The Grapes of Wrath: Tests of Character,
11. X-raying Gabriel García Márquez: Making It Strange,
12. X-raying Homer, Virgil, Roth — and Hitchcock: Zooming In,
13. X-Raying Chaucer: Pointing the Way,
14. X-raying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Careless Wish,
15. X-raying Macbeth: Ends of Things,
16. X-raying Shakespeare's Sonnets: Shaking the Form,
17. X-raying Moby-Dick: Three Little Words,
18. X-raying W. B. Yeats: Sacred Center,
19. X-raying Zora Neale Hurston: Words on Fire,
20. X-raying Harper Lee: Weight of the Wait,
21. X-raying M. F. K. Fisher: Cooking a Story,
22. X-raying Hiroshima: Stopped Clock,
23. X-raying Rachel Carson and Laura Hillenbrand: Sea Inside Us,
24. X-raying Toni Morrison: Repetitious Variation,
25. X-raying Charles Dickens and Donna Tartt: Echo of Text,
Great Sentences from Famous Authors: An Exercise in X-ray Reading,
Twelve Steps to Get Started as an X-ray Reader,
About the Author,