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Reading Softly

Today, I misread a student blog in which there was a discussion of “reading softly” in reference to Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves. The student was writing about “threading softly” when analyzing indigenous literature because there is a danger of imposing settler interpretations that might become limiting rather than expansive. In a way, what the student was saying also aligned with what I had understood in my misreading. It got me thinking. I like the idea of reading softly because it implies a gentle approach to the materials being studied. Instead of coming up with grand, sharp-edged theories (deconstruction, structuralism, new criticism), one could approach texts directly, at face value, but make an effort to shed one's biases and history.

In my regular close-reading sessions, I encourage students to acknowledge their background and the perspective it carries. I often emphasize the relative paths of interpretation and make an effort to validate their lived experiences, even as I recognize some readings as more insightful than others.

Soft reading could represent a different approach. If one is able to acknowledge one’s prejudices, one might also be able to freeze them in an effort to accomplish a soft reading. Here is what I would like to gain from the process: a gentle reading open to ideas that might be foreign to the reader. The result should be more of absorption than interpretation, more of feeling than understanding. Soft reading should open one’s mind so other people’s worlds can inhabit its space for a moment and, as their shapes remain, faint or defined, they might take hold and change it in a way that critical approaches might not do. It might be, perhaps, something similar to Borges’ description of his understanding of Quevedo’s poem “Memoria inmortal de Don Pedro Girón, Duque de Osuna, muerto en la prisión” (“Immortal memory of Don Pedro Girón, Duke of Osuna, dead in prison”). One line, in particular, stood out for him in this poem: “his epitaph the blood-red moon.” Borges talks about how, at a young age, unable to understand the meaning of the word “epitaph” or to ascertain the significance of the “blood-red moon,” he loved the sound of the words as well as their evocative character. The words marked him. They opened a path of language that he cultivated until his death.

Why not try to forget what you know or what you think you know and attempt a soft reading of a short text? Reading softly might become a nourishing, enriching experience.

Here is the whole sonnet, with a translation.

Memoria inmortal de Don Pedro Girón, Duque de

Osuna, muerto en la prisión

Faltar pudo su patria al grande Osuna,

pero no a su defensa sus hazañas;

diéronle muerte y cárcel las Españas,

de quien él hizo esclava la Fortuna.

Lloraron sus invidias una a una

con las proprias naciones las extrañas;

su tumba son de Flandres las campañas,

y su epitafio la sangrienta luna.

En sus exequias encendió al Vesubio

Parténope, y Trinacria al Mongibelo;

el llanto militar creció en diluvio.

Diole el mejor lugar Marte en su cielo;

la Mosa, el Rhin, el Tajo y el Danubio

murmuran con dolor su desconsuelo.

Immortal memory of Don Pedro Girón, Duke of

Osuna, dead in prison

His country may have failed the great Osuna,

but never did his deeds in his defense,

Spain gave him death and prison,

though he made Fortune her slave.

Foreign lands, and his own,

wept tears of envy, one by one;

his tomb was the fields of Flanders,

his epitaph the blood-red moon.

For his funeral Naples ignited

Vesuvius, Sicily Etna;

and martial grief became a flood.

Mars gave him the best place in heaven;

the Mosel, Rhine, Tagus, and Danube

murmur their grief inconsolably.

(edited and translated by Christopher Johnson, 2009)

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