On Choosing How to Read

September 21, 2016 § 7 Comments

Brevity‘s editorial intern, Hannah Koerner, reflects on her summer in Brooklyn working for an indie publisher and other ways that ‘reading for work’ influences how she reads:


Hannah Koerner

A month ago I grabbed bagels with a friend somewhere just outside Central Park. He’d been working as a copy editor on a Buzzfeed-like website for about a year and writing on the side, rereading Moby Dick for something like the tenth time and finishing off the oeuvres of authors like Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante.

I assumed he was still trying to break into publishing, which was the initial vague goal he entered the city with and which I vaguely planned to follow.

By then I’d spent two months wading through fiction manuscripts and nonfiction proposals, crafting rejection letters and entering author corrections; I was in the middle of a summer internship with an indie press in Brooklyn. Having moved to the city with my own formidable pile of to-be-read Ferrantes and Junot Diazs and Maggie Nelsons, I found myself instead balancing printed manuscripts on my morning commute, making progress through the press’s thicket of submissions and acquainting myself with its back catalogue.

A lot of times it’s a matter of tone, not just quality, one of the editors had told me. So I read that press’s books and figured out what I needed to look for: a political slant, a surrealist twist, nonfiction just the exact degree of unexpected enough.

“Nah, I’m staying out of publishing. I figure I only have time to read so many books. And I want them to be the best things the English language has done,” my friend said over bagels.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, that working with literature means choosing what you want to read. But that often gets overlooked. It also means choosing how and why you want to read.

Moving from a university press to a literary magazine to an indie publisher has meant playing something like a prolonged game of dress up with my reading. To give it a professorial jacket and glasses for fact-checking detail, then stripping it down and tossing over a pared-down dress for grabbing rhythm in poetry: both of these different from the deep sea diving required for writing papers on Joyce, or the cozy lounge attire of cracking open a new young adult title.

Working at a book publisher meant reading with an eye to contemporary trends and questions and needs. To read for a readership, which is not the same as reading for beauty. Which only rarely means reading to discover the next great canonical name of my time.

I like to relax into my reading. I like to take it out on a low commitment date and see what happens, to play with whatever catches my eye about it. I think this lends itself to publishing; I am, after all, a contemporary reader. Being interested in why books interest me is useful.

But this is something I never thought to think of when I began college as an English undergraduate looking towards the publishing industry as a vague monolith on which to pin twin hopes of working with books and being able to pay rent. In weighing an MFA, or buckling down into Woolf for a PhD, or publishing, I never quite realized until that conversation with my friend that if I chose one and stuck with it, the act of reading—the activity that shaped my imagination and my free time since I first walked out of a kindergarten classroom knowing this letter meant this sound—will take a more definite, less malleable, shape. And that might be the most important thing to consider if you think you might want to read for a living: to decide with intention why and how you would like to do that reading.

Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!


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