Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Reading

To invent a theory of reading would be an intellectual gesture commensurate with a tyrant's salute. It is taking an experience that is highly private and coercing or presuming its commonality. However, I imagine that those who enjoy reading at least have in common the enjoyment without coercion or presumption. This delight is the first and most important principle. Without enjoyment there is no understanding, at least not in the literal sense Webster renders the etymological meaning of the word. To understand is “to stand among.” But what is disliked is avoided. One avoids repugnant company but one "stands among" delightful company, becomes a part of it. One loses one's self in it. This moment of abandon to the enjoyment, whether of literature or another art, is one half of the total function of art. It is a moment of self-transcendence that leads ultimately to the other half which is a deeper self-awareness.

On my bedroom wall is a postcard. It is a miniature reproduction of a painting called "Reader." It is by a German painter by the name of Michael Sowa. It depicts the small, mid-distant figure of a man reading. His hands are thrust into his pockets. The book levitates in the air at eye level, suggesting that it, like its reader, has transcended its physical nature. It defies gravity. The man too defies gravity. He stands atop the thick, oily blue water of a sea that stretches from horizon to horizon. Threatening, white-crested waves rise all around revealing the intensity of wind. The man is oblivious and unaffected. He is secure in his book. The great dangerous expanse of the seascape is nothing to him. The very words he reads protects him against the elements. He is as confident as Christ astride Gennesaret.

Of course, one can interpret the water as symbolic of the unconscious. Yet this only intensifies the realization of the reader's complete absorption. He is unaware of his actual surroundings, which probably are a study, a porch, or maybe even a beach where people play volleyball only a few hundred feet away. Time passes and he doesn't notice. The light of late afternoon dims into the early evening, then dims into the darkness of night. He doesn't notice. He grows hungry and doesn't notice. One might say he is out of his senses except for the fact that he is highly concentrated, highly aware. What has happened is that the timing of his own day has been replaced by the timing of the book he reads.

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said, "Song is, after all, restructured time." I would take this a step farther. All art, whether poetry or otherwise, is an embodiment of a certain timing, a certain rhythm. The difference between time and timing is the difference between when your alarm clock goes off and when you actually wake up. Timing is the pace at which you move through the day. The "morning person" moves at a different tempo than the "night owl." And what these two perceive in their world and what they make of it will correspond to the pace at which they move through it. Even if they live in the same neighborhood, they will see and understand that neighborhood differently.

In The Republic, Plato notes that the modes or rhythms of music in a given city never change without a corresponding change in that city's laws. Although the uses to which Plato puts this insight have been heavily disputed for centuries, the insight itself is nonetheless a remarkable one and one generally accepted. The insight is that the pace at which one moves manifests itself as a philosophy, as a way of understanding the world. Rhythm is a kind of wisdom.

Losing oneself in a novel, a painting, a piece of music is to lose one's own rhythms in those of the artwork. It is to get hungry and not notice, to actually grow tired, have an itch, or have your foot fall asleep and not notice. Then you finish the poem, the novel, or the essay. Your stomach growls. The digital clock winks to an unreasonably late hour even though you are the "morning person." But you still haven't emerged completely. The world looks different from the last time you glanced at it. The angles and curves of the furniture in the room appear strangely sharper, more distinct. It is as though one's sense of perspective were heightened. You are still looking with the eyes of the narrator of the book. It is what a friend of mine calls "book shock." It is the other half of the total effect of reading. It is the return to the self, the moment of self-awareness or self-remembrance.

This "book shock" doesn't happen with all books and for any number of reasons which this essay isn't about. What is important is that the experience doesn't depend upon whether you agree or disagree with the work or author. My own most extreme experience of this was after reading the novel, The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. The novel depicts many pitifully twisted characters, most of whom deceive themselves as much as they deceive others. The sense of their pain and desperation is pervasive. But no description of the novel will impart what I experienced for more than a week after reading the novel. I saw people differently. I was acutely aware of the self-deception in others and in my self.

Eventually my own way of seeing returned. My own rhythm of living came back to me. But from the vantage point of having read the novel, I gained a perspective on other people and myself. It is not a way I typically live. It is not the rhythm of my walk or the tenor of my dialogue. The novel's assumptions and rhythms are ones I find unfair and unforgiving. However, a rhythm is not truth. It is only a means to reveal truth. So I carry this rhythm from the novel in my head and sometimes a person will say something or gesture a certain way and remind me of the tune, of some character from The Recognitions or some event in it. There are even times I will say or do something that stops me in mid-motion because I am reminded of the insights granted through the perspective of the book. I wonder, "Have I fooled myself all this time? Has my desperation blinded me to such an obvious self-deception?" Through the book I have gained a perspective on my own motives and intentions.

For those who spend their energy trying to locate the meaning of a text either in an author's intentions or motives, this way of reading will appear strangely to leave the author out of the equation. I'm not suggesting that learning about an author's life can't enlighten one's understanding of his work. However, the majority of books available to us are by authors who are dead. Whatever intentions or motives these authors have are now only real to us through the works they've left behind. They are embodied only in the rhythms, diction and syntax of the actual work, just as unconscious activities are typically "read" from someone's body language and inflections.

But honestly, no distinction is as blindly habitual as the modern distinction between conscious and unconscious minds. It is probably more clarifying to talk about attention. What one pays attention to one invests with both the conscious and unconscious minds. In other words, the whole mind is invested into the object or person toward which the active attention directs itself. A work of art is invested with an immense amount of attention. What that attention leaves behind is not only meaning but also love. Quoting Joseph Brodsky again, this time from the poem “In England” in memory of W.H. Auden, he writes:

Subtracting the greater from the lesser—time from man—
you get words, the remainder, standing out against their
white background more clearly than the body
ever manages to while it lives, though it cry "Catch me!"—

thus the source of love turns into the object of love

This way of reading is admittedly lofty. It is not the way one reads everything, especially not instruction manuals or road signs. But reading is a private experience and the way one reads is equally private. We all come to a love of reading under different circumstances and for different reasons. Those differences will manifest themselves in how one reads and what one reads. But for all that privacy, the one thing all avid readers share is their delight. This delight is the seduction that leads to insight, a greater understanding of oneself. In an essay called, "The Necessity of Poetry," Paul Valéry said the same thing. He wrote, "art gives us the means to explore at leisure that part of our own sensibility that remains restricted in its relation to reality." As I have suggested, this is true in spite of what a text means. If a person who delights in reading reads a book he disagrees with, the common delight of reading counterpoints his disagreement. That counterpoint is a kind of reconciliation with the rhythms of the self and is manifest as a deeper self-awareness, a profounder understanding of who one is and how one lives.

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