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How Reading Is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein

by Astrid Lorange
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2014
269 pp., illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $24.95; eBook, $19.99
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7511-1; 978-0-8195-7512-8; 978-0-8195-7513-5.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research
University of Plymouth

edith.doove@plymouth.ac.uk

How Reading is Written, which in its title alludes to the Gertrude Stein anthology How Writing is Written, is the result of Lorange's extended PhD research. At the very the beginning she uses a quote from Tender Buttons, as a very apt introduction: "The use of this is manifold". Alluding to the multiple meanings of manifold the book is meant to be non-linear, a flexible object, a book to work with. Lorange regards the index as instrumental for this kind of use, stating that as a paratext it is auxiliary and derivative. The index can also be seen as a kind of translation in her view, presenting, as it were, a book within a book.

After the introduction on the use of the index, Lorange poses the question of her own preoccupation: 'Why Stein?' - which could just as well be 'Why still Stein?' as literature on her chosen subject is both vast and substantial. Her response to her own question is the necessity for a different approach that acknowledges a different quality in the writing and that comes down to a reading 'with', 'alongside', and 'giving in to' the endurance of what reading Gertrude Stein actually is. Stein's writing is usually either approached as hermetic, difficult, stubborn and nonsensical or made the subject for extended searches for hidden meanings. Both approaches are however limiting the text's meaning as they either resort to intrinsic meaning or pure nothingness. Lorange argues, therefore, an alternative mode in which the compositional practices of reading and writing are to be seen as constructive experiences that produce and investigate the contexts and relations of language in a specific occasion (Lorange 10). The so-called obscurity or opaqueness, a terminology Lorange gets from Steven Meyer [1] of Stein's writing is, thus, seen as a positive, a "philosophical and constructive attitude," that leads to the contemplation on what is endured in a proper engagement with a text and what happens in the time of reading as this is exactly what Stein seemed to aim at.

Quoting Michael Davidson's essay 'On Reading Stein,' Lorange's argument is, therefore, to support the imperative to learn "to read writing, not read meanings, (…) to interrogate the spaces around words as much as the words themselves; (…) discover language as an active 'exchange' of meaning rather than a static paradigm of rules and features. The question is not 'what' she meant but 'how'" (Lorange 12).

In the 10 sections that follow the introduction, Lorange, thus, not so much tries to dissect Stein as to read alongside with her. The sections are organised alphabetically, but as stand alone essays can also be read in any order. Their mostly deceptively simple titles allude to the everyday language that Stein used from a democratic perspective: Bodies, Food, Grammar, Identity, Objects, Play. There are also more complex ones such as Contemporaneity, Queering, Repetition and USA, and these too have the same resonance. But every essay is taken well beyond its subject title by reading it from as many angles as possible. The section on 'Food' thus starts from the simple and almost too obvious observation that Stein clearly liked her food as affluently demonstrated in the second section Tender Buttons (starting with the famous 'Roastbeef' and followed by about 40 other food-related musings) but also in her impressive posture. Lorange takes her reading with and alongside Stein, however, to another level in this chapter when referring to the idea of appetite or the metaphysical concept of 'appetition,' which she arrives at via "Leibniz, James, and Whitehead by way of Isabelle Stengers, Joan Richardson, and Steven Shaviro" (Lorange 74). This leads her to a labyrinthine concoction of mental food that is sustained quite consistently throughout the book, circling around notions of affection and emergence with and of language in its 'manifold' meanings. Under 'Food' this gives, for instance, cause to allude also to Serres' parasite as well as Ngai's notion of cuteness.

The heading, 'Play,' alludes to the noun but also to the fact that Stein, indeed, wrote plays, which she regarded as landscapes and in which she explored the idea of nervousness as a going faster or slower to get together, of meaning, writer and audience. This notion of rhythm is further developed under the heading of "Contemporaneity". Throughout the book the strong affinity with Whitehead seeps through as is also already made clear in the introduction. Overall the texts are rich in bringing together various sources that sometimes seem to stray away from the actual subject. As in any labyrinth it is easy to get lost, and Lorange tries to hint at possible throughways via links to other chapters in the marginal textbox. Sometimes however, one is left to wonder why the obvious ones are missing.

Lorange's argument to use the index as a format to approach Stein's writing is interesting. It results in a rich and layered book that invites to delve (and get lost) into the many references it makes. In a Coda Lorange states how Feyerabend's Against Method turned out to be quite instrumental and relates how Feyerabend wished he had chosen the word 'Dada' rather than 'anarchism' in relation to his proposed alternative for rationalism: "A Dadaist is prepared to initiate joyful experiments even in those domains where change and experimentation seem to be out of question (example: the basic function of language)" (Against Method, 21 nt 12; Lorange 247). I suppose that Lorange both hints at the joyful experiment of Stein's writing as well as her own undertaking. And it is joyful indeed, but having said that, it is also a real shame if not downright irritating that the book lacks a proper index, after all a book is a book. One that advertises it so explicitly in its title and set up begs for one. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the shortcoming is easily overcome, but having to use Google Books as a default search engine cannot have been the idea, certainly not for a proper Dadaist.

References:

[1] Meyer, S. (2001). Irresistible dictation. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press.


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