BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


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POEM: Visiting Dystopia [Triolet]

I opened up a book to a strange land.
A storied portal let me travel through,
and I looked down an unknown city’s strand.
I’d opened up a book to a strange land.
Here, ironically, all great books were banned
to keep the locals home and quite subdued.
I opened up a book to a strange land;
a storied portal let me travel through.

POEM: The Reader

I tore up your world, remaking
it in a style that was my own.

I wiped the crown from your King’s head,
and painted myself on the throne.

Your cast kept me good company
when I felt like being alone.

Your story became the sum of
my knowledge, both known and unknown.

For these sins and so many more,
I refuse to ever atone.

POEM: Literary Journeys

I’ve taken journeys by the page,
sitting before the Globe’s great stage,
trolling a knight’s tilt at windmills,
and seen where Grendel made his kills
to kick off a much greater rage.


I learned why birds sing in their cage,
and why the caged go on rampage,
while knights and knaves go quest for thrills.
I’ve read of roads…


I’ve spanned the Stone through the Space Age
while living too briefly to be sage,
I’ve moved by dogsled through the chill,
and opulently, with all the frills.
I’ve read of roads…

POEM: The World According to a Reader

I’ve built cities in my brain,
cities that no one would recognize.

I’ve danced around Dublin with Dedalus and Bloom,
but no Dubliner would recognize his fair city
from my mental projection.

It doesn’t matter how masterful Joyce is in his description.
I’ve only visited the version that I tossed up in my mind
as I tore through his poetry,
and which was torn down in the wake of my reading.

And yet I treasure that false metropolis.

It’ll do — for now.

POEM: Rocketed by Book

I donned this book like sunglasses
to tweak my old worldview,
but that intent was overshot
and I saw all anew.

I peered at the page and there saw
another universe.
Through eyes not mine, but no better —
nor in any way worse.

Eyes that’d seen things unknown to me,
but not this world of mine.
We’ll have to work together to
unravel space and time.

POEM: Reading Courageously


If you’ve never been incensed,
challenged, or nauseous —
your reading is too safe, puny,
and far, far too cautious.

Reading should be a courageous act
that threatens all you know.
It should shove your feet into shoes
far different from your own.

If you want your world unchanged,
T.V. is right for you.
Books will insist you be torn a-
part and rebuilt anew.

5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

5 Reasons to Read Outside Your Comfort Zone

5.) Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets stronger in the absence of adversity. If I told you that I had a strength building regime that would double your strength and you’d never be sore, you’d call bullshit. [I’m presuming that you’re not the proud owner of a Shake Weight.] Yet, somehow, people think they can build a stronger mind while consuming only information that confirms their existing worldview just because it, at best, offers a few additional scraps of information.

4.) Get a journey on the cheap.
 Reading outside your comfort zone not only exposes you to an unfamiliar world, it’s good preparation for traveling and the mental gymnastics that will be required of you. If you cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of reading something that challenges your existing worldview, you aren’t ready for traveling — stick with your AC bus tour group, or stay at home. [Yes, I’m distinguishing between being a tourist and a traveler. If you’re a traveler, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t know the difference, you — my friend — are either a tourist or a homebody. Yes, furthermore, I’m aware of the irony of making a distinction between travelers and tourists in a post that is — in part — a critique of the proclivity to create separations between oneself and large portions of the rest of humanity.]

3.) Master your mind. If you get queasy reading a character perspective that is remote from your experience, or if you get livid reading views that radically depart from your own, that’s a good opportunity to step in and rewire your mind to be more agile and empathetic. A good place to start is by trying to adopt another’s perspective as a dispassionate observer.

2.) Tear down some of the things you “know.”  I use the word “know” [in quote marks] to describe those beliefs you ascribe to with iron-clad certainty for no reason that would survive, say… lunch with Socrates. I’m not suggesting one should obliterate all of one’s beliefs, I’m just saying one should become aware of which articles of belief serve you and which do not.

For a few decades, I thought the path to a truer picture of the world involved adding to my stockpile of knowledge. However, I realized that some of what I knew was bullshit, and just adding to a stockpile of knowledge ballooned up the bullshit as well as the understanding of truth. So I needed away to tear down illusions. But how to do it? Turns out that beating one’s head with a frying pan destroys what one knows as well as what one “knows.” Furthermore, it turns out that reading outside my comfort zone has been key to helping separate the wheat of knowledge from the chaff.

1.) Be less predictable. Emerson said, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” He was a smart guy, and thought for himself.