I was famously sitting in my family's cabin by the Allegheny River for the coldest six-month stretch of my life. Late fall, I watched the ice gather on the river in small patches and form fields, which themselves impinged on the shore like hour-long car wrecks, until the water was frozen solid. I was a college dropout and a college grad. For an entire month, the high temperature did not rise above freezing. I was a steel-mill worker and a hoddie. I was also an ex-all those things and, though I couldn't know it at the time, a soon-to-be grad student. Mostly, I spent that winter reading and writing. I had visits from friends and family on the weekend, but spent four or five days each week, not hearing a human voice or seeing a human face (unless you count the folks on the other side of the river or the characters on the VCR tapes).
One of my favorite programs to watch at the time was a Nature Channel or Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel series about the world. I forget which channel, clearly, but I do know that the series explored the tundra, the polar caps, and South American rain forests, specifically, as well as a few other sweeping geographical generalizations. I learned a lot about the planet. My favorite detail came when a flock of toucans, who had apparently eaten some sour berries, ate mud from a cliff. The mud had no nutritional value, but provided a base to counter the negative effects of the acidic berries. Ha! Not a pharmacist or an M.D. among them. Parrot, I thought, heal thyself! I knew they weren't parrots, though, so it was a moot point.
Later in the same episode, the announcer in a conversation about one of the most complex ecosystems in the known universe says, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." I paused and rewound and played that line at least a dozen time. "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." "Nothing," the announcer says, "exists in isolation in the forest."
I had payed money for these tapes. That line was scripted. It's not as though the announcer were commentating a live broadcast of the forest. He had been payed to say, very specifically, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest."
I felt duped.
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On the other hand, I love Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. She insists that we all slow down and read and recall what it's like to savor what we read and to learn from what we read such that when we read again or when we read something else or when we write, we can enjoy again what we have read in other great works. More than insist, she gives us permission to read thus.
She begins her book by insisting on close reading in her chapter 1 titled "Close Reading." She goes on to focus on how a story might hinge or develop or change entirely as the result of a single word in her chapter 2 titled "Words." Chapters 3, 4, and 5 -- "Sentences," "Paragraphs," and "Narration," respectively -- grow larger in scope, but focus on language with the same kind of intensity as her previous discussion of close reading and words. "Character," "Dialogue," "Details," and "Gesture" -- chapters 6-9 -- encourage us to consider carefully the myriad ways in which an author develops a piece of fiction through such such devices.
** For the record, I realize that if the furnace is ten stories tall, I probably don't have to mention that it's industrial. I'm in too much of a hurry to bother with redundancies.