Josna Rege

304. Against the Grain

In blogs and blogging, Books, Education, Nature, Politics, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2015 at 11:53 pm

UnknownWorking in a small letterpress job shop and not being much of a printer, I had to do a lot of hand-folding—of invitations and announcements, diplomas, greeting cards, programmes, menus, and the like. If the paper was lightweight, 20 or even 24-lb stock, then folding was easy, particularly with a good folding bone. But when it came to card stock, it was essential to design the job so as not to have to fold against the grain, since that produced a jagged line, full of cracks. As long as you went with the grain of the paper, your fold would be smooth and straight, and the task effortless.

I can’t remember how young I was when I first encountered the expression “against the grain,” but I seem to recall that it was generally used to refer to an action that would trouble the conscience; something out of character, at odds with a person’s very nature. For a generous person it would go against the grain to turn away a beggar, as would anything crooked for a straight arrow.

In those innocent days I took the conscience to be an inbuilt barometer of right and wrong, so that going against the grain would necessarily mean doing something wrong. Much later, after my effortless girlhood, after my paper-folding twenties, I went in for postgraduate study, where I learned, as one does in grad. school, that everything I thought I knew for sure was in fact wrong; everything I thought had been in place from time immemorial had in fact been invented in the nineteenth century; and going against the grain, troubling that smooth, straight fold, was in fact the responsibility of educated men and women.

Cracked-spine paper (

Cracked-spine paper (

Why, you may well ask? Because what we have been taught to see as part of the natural order of things is in fact socially constructed. It is because it is part of the dominant discourse it is made to seem natural and is internalized as such. Thus, in the nineteenth-century hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, we are made to believe that just as God made “each little flower that opens/each little bird that sings” he also made,

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Peter Barry cites this verse in his Beginning Theory (a text I use in one of my undergraduate classes), noting:

It is obvious here that social inequality is being ‘naturalised’, that is, literally, disguised as nature, and viewed as a situation which is ‘god-given’ and inescapable, when actually it is the product of a specific politics and power structure.

When an idea becomes ingrained—established, entrenched—it becomes the path of least resistance for one’s thoughts and inclinations. Reading against the grain, then, becomes an important act of resistance.

It is late at night, and for some reason what keeps coming to mind is Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic. Surely Jimi was going against the grain, and delighting in it. But tonight, when I finally climb into bed, rather than counting sheep I will imagine myself folding stacks of freshly-cut, creamy-white card stock, in long, smooth, strokes, with the grain, effortlessly.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. Going against the grain is the duty of the educated, you have said that very well. It is good that we do not follow public opinion, just because everyone does. The power of alternatives, synonyms in the figure of speech you use, is needed to bring perspective. And any picture will look better in perspective.

    It is a wonderful first post in A-Z challange. Looking forward to the next.

    • Thank you for visiting and posting a kind and thoughtful comment (and forgive my slowness in responding–Day 4 and I’m already falling behind). I like what you said about the power of alternatives enriching the whole by providing great perspective. Now I will visit your blog!

  2. Lovely, Josna. The prospect of reading your words (written or chosen) every day this month is very exciting!

    This entry brings to mind words from the very first book that hummed in my bones and felt like home, J. Krishnamurti’s Flight of The Eagle, where Krishnamurti asks, again and again, if the mind ever be truly free of its conditioning. “If the mind says it cannot, then it has made itself incapable, it has distorted itself and is incapable of perception, of understanding…”

    Here’s to the courage and fortitude required to live against the grain and attempt to see clearly. What an endeavor (ooooph!).

    With Love,

    • Thank you, Morgan, for your wise and always-kind comments. I doubt if I’ll be able to live up to your expectations all month through; day 4 and I’m already flagging and falling behind. My mother’s copy of Krishnamurti’s The Flight of the Eagle was sitting on my bookshelf just a few feet away, but I’d never read it.Thanks to you, I’ve taken it down and will soon take it up! xo J

  3. ‘Going against the grain’ doesn’t just leave jagged edges: in carpentry, where I’m sure the term originated, going against the grain can actually be quite difficult, especially in the days before mechanical and electrical tools. All the original beams in our circa 1800 house follow the grain of the oak wood they were cut from, even to the extent of rarely having a really straight edge from using natural contours. Socially it’s very difficult, then, to wade against the tide of customary thinking.

    More than that, implicit in the phrase is a warning: to have a structure made from timbers cut against the grain is dangerous, as the pieces can more easily get torn apart by the forces operating on any weaknesses in the grain. So, going against the grain is hard and dangerous; but, to use a culinary metaphor, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…

    • When I was almost finished with this first piece for the Challenge, I realized that of course, the phrase must have had its origins in carpentry. Still, paper, made from wood, has a grain as well and the term is very much in use in printing, so I decided to leave it be. Yes, as you point out beautifully, it is more difficult and can be downright dangerous to go against the grain; even as I argued for going against the grain metaphorically speaking, I hoped to suggest that it isn’t necessarily an inherent good, just because it is more difficult. Considering its origins makes that point very well, as you point out in your second example. I’d love to see those old beams in your house. Thank you for visiting; I live for comments like yours!

  4. I never realized that about folding against the grain or cutting wood against the grain. Interesting. Going against the established structural grain, that I did know about 😛

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it, Kristin, when you learn the origins of a metaphor in material culture? You can understand it on a much deeper level, in all its textured complexities.

  5. Very interesting post, thanks. I like that image of folding cardstock with the grain. My references for “against the grain” came when I learned to cut fabric in sewing class in 7th grade and then later when someone showed me to cut beef against the grain.

    • Yes, of course–cloth and meat have “grains” as well; thank you for reminding me. It’s an art (which I haven’t learned) to cut fabric on the bias, and it is so much easier to cut meat with the grain. I find it thrilling to cut fabric along the straight grain: it’s as if the scissors take on a life of their own and the cloth seems to cut itself. Thanks very much for visiting and leaving this comment.

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