an artist’s guide to reading

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Last year I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to return to school to finally, finally, finally finish my bachelor’s degree, and with that came the task of learning to read again. After years of being emotionally and intellectually exhausted by chaotic work environments and my brain addled by the internet, here I had the time and opportunity to study, which often meant reading. In the spring, the company I was working for folded, and I even-more-luckily had enough savings to study full-time for a few months, supplementing my degree with additional classes online and in-person, which meant, very often, even more reading.

For many years, the only books I read outside of the occasional beach read (shout out to my friend Jenna for always recommending a good noir thriller whenever I have vacation time, check out “Rhode Island Red” the next time you have a long weekend) were the sort of books that people in tech like to recommend to each other because they are somehow considered edifying or relevant or useful. Some of them (“Radical Candor”) were hate reads and some (“The Laws of Simplicity”) at least had felt meaningful to me at some time in the past, but they were generally even breezier than your typical Hudson News murder mystery with obvious conclusions repeated ad nauseam. They were Ted Talk transcripts more than they were capital-b Books.

My final course to finish my degree this summer was one on contemporary short fiction by women writers. It was shocking to realize how rusty I was at reading and appreciating fiction when required to read and write about a new book every week, and for all that Silicon Valley loves to think of itself as a braintrust, the chats I had with my classmates were some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I’ve had in years. The first few weeks felt exhausting, and yet the idea of setting aside long blocks of time to sit and read also felt wildly indulgent. We’re so well-trained by Netflix to binge 15 hours of Love is Blind, but using that same amount of time to read and write every week seemed to be both a luxury and a marathon. By the time I was reading Ling Ma’s “Bliss Montage” in the final week, it felt hard to imagine what I was doing with my mind in those years without reading, just as it’s hard to now to imagine what I did with my body before returning to sports in adulthood (more on this next week!).

The loss of this ability to truly and properly read strikes me as a symptom of the particular type of digital burnout that feels so ominously present when, on one end, our work lives are permeable and unending without being particularly rewarding or challenging, and on the other, we’re constantly surrounded by content that is addictive and easy without being particularly entertaining. Reading is less suffering through a restrictive diet to bring your cholesterol down and more like trying cook a properly delicious meal for yourself when you’re already tired from work and there’s a McDonald’s on your walk home from the subway. If we weren’t so fried from our bullshit jobs, would we be so susceptible to give up pleasurable challenges for digital sludge?

To dive a little deeper on these themes, I invited my friend, the writer Ulrich Jesse K. Baer, to chat with me about the act of reading and his upcoming course on science fiction writing. The 5-week course will be an opportunity for interested participants to workshop their own writing while reading and analyzing Samuel Delany’s “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.”

Flyer for Ulrich's 5-week science fiction writing workshop, featuring a flying saucer photographed near an Air Force base in New Mexico in 1957. The black and white photo is highly textured and ambiguous. The truth is out there!

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Artist’s Guide: I found it hard this year to get back into reading as a proper habit the same way it might be hard to get back into exercise after a break – the muscle memory was there but the endurance and focus were not. There was this real grind to get over that initial friction with the act to where it felt pleasurable and exciting again. How do you approach reading as a part of your creative practice? How do you approach reading for pleasure? Is there a difference?

I think there is an endurance element to reading as a part of enriching one’s creative practice, like watching a long, slow art film. Having a structure in place that requires you to complete reading assignments can help you rehabituate to the task; I think it really is analogous to a muscle–the tension or resistance is ultimately a pleasurable obstacle, if you allow yourself to surmount it. The notion of “reading for pleasure” begins to blur, then, with the practice of reading constructively or generatively. Ideally, one reads broadly to address various aesthetic interests and needs.

Part of the struggle, I find, is that we live at least partially in digital spaces where so many things are screaming for our attention, and these things are also designed to erode our very capacity for attention. And even writers are expected to engage with these screaming attention economies to self-market. Do you engage with any online spaces that you find useful? Or would you rather not fuck with that shit?

Lately, I’ve been really interested in The Syllabus Project. In a modernity where there is an overwhelming proliferation of text(s), simply having a guide can help track one’s attention. We can use a personal interest to divine a particular path of attentiveness, and finally trust that we’ll follow it.

This speaks to the exercise analogy as well – I find it useful to set a clear, discrete goal and the find or create a structured plan to reach that goal, say, I’m going to run a 10k on June 15th and these are the steps I will follow along the way.

For this course you’re having participants read and discuss “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” by Samuel Delany. Why did you choose this particular text to explore as a companion to the workshop?

This text by Delany is certainly less well-known than Dhalgren, for example, but contains some similar themes and ars poetica style reflections on the creative process. In a scene near the beginning, a character employs a futuristic technology involving reading cubes and knowledge absorption gloves. Having consumed, in this manner, various manuscripts, he reflects on a sort of “anxiety of influence” as he notices more or less unconscious linguistic homages and thefts between texts, in an ironic and self-reflexive way that reminds me of Bolaño, who was heavily inspired by new wave science fiction authors. I believe that Delany’s work is representative of the prescience of new wave sci fi, which employs the speculative field to image possibilities for living otherwise. We were speaking of friction before, and Delany is a writer whose work idiosyncratically blends the challenges of his Foucault-indebted discourse with the genre fiction pastiche pleasures of b-movie genre fiction. He is a queer author who allows the text to divide into successive vignettes, so that the reader has to perform the “work” of tracing the threads between them. In fact, perhaps, to deliberately and deliberatively pursue and concatenate threads of meaning is a pleasure.

Tell me a little about your upcoming books.

I have two books coming out in 2024 and 2025, successively. I also have a book available now with Apocalypse Party Press called “Midwestern Infinity Doctrine.” This text responds to Agamben’s call in “Infancy and History” for a Marxist conception of time that radically breaks with positivist linearity, while taking the infamous b-film “Star Crash” as its armature. My upcoming experimental poetry collection “Deer Black Out” with Red Hen Press builds upon the queer lineage of American poets such as Ronald Johnson. In 2025, my anti-enlightenment gay space vampire novel, “Beyond the Planet of the Vampires,” will be published with Clash Books. This text uses the format of fan fiction with respect to Mario Bava’s “The Planet of the Vampires” to explore homographesis, as defined in the work of Lee Edelman, to speculate about queer and trans masculinities.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!

Thank you so much for including me, Martha, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.

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To learn more about Ulrich’s highly recommended course and register for the upcoming cohort, visit the syllabus here.


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