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The Sin of the Impatient Reader

Saint Paul includes patience as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  Yet patience is a difficult virtue because it takes so much time. Often I say jokingly, well half-jokingly, that I am patient; it just doesn’t last very long.  Actually, I’m not too bad with people, probably because that’s what is mainly commanded in the Scripture. I am, however, terrible with machines, but I am not guilty of the impatient reader’s chief sin.  No, I’m not alluding to looking at the last page to see the ending in advance, bad as that may be.  The great sin of the impatient reader is to skip over lengthy passages of scenic landscapes and seascapes, arcane architectural features, and even the clothing and physical features of a character in the novel.

Now, I don’t want to appear impatient.  The sin of skipping over landscape passages is understandable.  It is part and parcel of the desire to know what happens.  How will the story end?  The impatient reader can’t wait.  He becomes irritated with the author for all those verbose passages replete with literary adjectives cluttering seemingly endless catalogue of obscure plants, topographical details and meteorological conditions about which he has at best only the vaguest notions, if any.  “Why can’t he get on with story?  He must be getting paid by the word,” complains our hasty reader.

The impatient reader’s sin is an insult to the artist, either by accusing him of being a mere mercenary scribbler or an incompetent who doesn’t know his storytelling trade.   It is dangerous to ask readers of blog posts to be patient, since they are usually looking for something quick to read, but please bear with me as I contend for the importance and the pleasure of descriptive passages.   Read the following from “The Lagoon,” a short story by Joseph Conrad, one of the great prose stylists of the English language.

The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake of the boat. At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling, poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless nipa palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves enormous and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of eddies. In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final. Nothing moved on the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing regularly, dipped together with a single splash; while the steersman swept right and left with a periodic and sudden flourish of his blade describing a glinting semicircle above his head. The churned up water frothed alongside with a confused murmur. And the white man’s canoe, advancing up stream in the short-lived disturbance of its own making, seemed to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of motion had forever departed.

Why would the impatient reader skim over or even skip this passage that Conrad has so carefully constructed?  Well, the impatient reader is like the impatient diner, who wants a shovel to consume great quantities of food at the trough.  Because he desires only to fill his gut, he does not actually taste the food.  Any excellence in the meal is lost to him.   In the same way the impatient reader cannot enjoy fine writing skills because of his ravenous plot hunger.  To enjoy great authors to the full we must savor their prose, and that takes time and patience.

More importantly, if possible, even though the impatient reader is concerned above all to know what happens, his neglect of landscape descriptions results in his failure to understand fully what does happen.  As he does in so much of his writing, Conrad’s setting is as much a part of the story as the plot.  The two are inseparable.  The main characteristic of the lagoon is its motionlessness.  Its immobility is only temporarily disturbed by the advance of the white man’s canoe.  Set in Malaysia during a time of European imperial domination, Conrad’s description tells us that the European’s influence is superficial and transitory.  It also sets the tone for a story that is about death, physical and perhaps spiritual too.  The lagoon’s immobility and silence represent the gloom of guilt and the oppressive stillness of death.

So repent of your impatience and heed the words of the skilled masters of prose.  Learn patience and gain pleasure and wisdom.  I hope soon to introduce you to Willa Cather, the “Poetess of the Prairie,” whose vivid landscapes act as characters in her novels.  In the meantime take up one of Conrad’s fine novels or short stories, take your time to read and ponder it, and enjoy a literary feast.

2 thoughts on “The Sin of the Impatient Reader

  1. Bill, what a beautifully written piece. A simplistic summary, in my own words, it seems today’s reader lacks the ability to relax, and let imagination paint the scenery of the tale being told by the author. Stop to smell the roses, if you will. The immediate access to any type of media via smartphone is amazing, it has undoubtedly exacerbated people’s impatience. Thank you for this post Bill, look forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future.

    1. Thanks, Layne. There is much good in all the electronic gadgetry we have, but you’re right. We’re in such a hurry that we can’t stop and take the time to enjoy things more deeply.

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