Monday, June 7

A Page at a Time

American author and epic fantasy writer Terry Goodkind said, "A book is read one page at a time. A shelf is read one book at a time. A library is read one shelf at a time." 

The most amazing journey of a reader begins a page at a time. Even as a small child, the act of turning the page is one of deliberate movement. Teachers witness the phenomenon all the time. As a child learns to read, he/she develops decision-making skills with each positive or negative reaction to a single page. A child cannot always identify where a story is headed, but they know almost immediately if they want to find out. If they are not interested by page one, they might not even make it to page two.

Adults are the same, even though our power of deductive reasoning has been strengthened over time with practice and repetition. In the book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders gives an example of how this process is so critical to the response of the reader: "In the first pulse of the story, the writer is like a juggler, throwing pins into the air. The rest of the story is the catching of those pins. At any point in the story, certain pins are up there and we can feel them. We'd better feel them. If not, the story has nothing out of which to make its meaning."

Each page presents the possibility of a pivotal moment for the writer and reader. The writer decides what will happen next, and the reader decides if he wants to know. Children understand this concept with their first bedtime stories. One page can introduce a warning, and they anticipate a pin drop. One page can create specific curiosity about a setting like a beautiful castle, or a dark wood, or a candy-coated cottage. One page can initiate a conflict that even the youngest listener recognizes as trouble. Saunders calls this "a linear temporal phenomenon."

In classic logic, formulas are fixed. Monday comes before Tuesday. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Everything is absolute - true or false. The simplest definition of linear temporal logic is that a condition is true until another fact becomes true or an expected condition will eventually be true if the path continues. However...if a subsequent path appears in time, one questions if the expected condition will remain true forever or never be true at all. Isn't that the very definition of reading?

That scientific formula is supported by the bowling pins example. We know they are up there - in the air - and we feel that we understand their trajectory. But, once again, what might happen, what needs to happen, or what will happen remains in the air until we turn the page.

If you are not able to attend the Forest Public Library book club in person, please enjoy the exercise presented in the book: Read one page and answer the following questions: Without looking at the page, 1) What do you know so far? 2) What are you curious about? 3) Where do you think the story is headed?

Consider this final quote from the book as we complete the first exercise. "It's kind of exciting to pause here and admit that, as things stand, it's not yet a story. Not yet. And I'm going to claim, right now, that by the end, it's going to be a great story. So, there's something essential to learn here about the form itself: whatever converts not yet a story into great story is going to happen any minute now, over this next (last) page."

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