Monday, February 23, 2015

The Reader Became the Book

Having troubling inclinations to read the blogs of known skeptics and professors of skepticism - the sort who say faith is not only not a virtue, but a vice; and any attempts to say that faith doesn't mean "blind faith" are for naught. The blindness is, for Skeptic-sensei, the heart of the matter.

All very troubling. And uninteresting for you, my reader. Maybe you agree with Dr. S. If you do, nothing I can say will change it. There's no point debating about most things.

Instead, I'll talk about something interesting I learned about myself.

Today, Geoff Brock asked us how we read books. Like, the actual physical process. I elaborated first, because I am a loudmouth. When I read a book, if I can, I'd rather listen to the audiobook while laying down with my eyes closed and trying to imagine what is being described. This, Geoff said, was not ideal - it was too passive. The book teaches you how to read itself, and you have to be paying attention to it. Geoff goes back and makes a bunch of notes and cross references.

Now, what I did was quote the man himself, having once said that a poem (which here I extrapolated to the novel) is like a machine that creates an emotional response in the reader. I said that I felt this sort of back and forth reading was gumming up that machine - if I had been cleverer, I would have said it was like constantly shifting the gears back and forth. He objected that it was in fact the opposite, that this sort of reflective reading was what was needed to have an understanding of the text. I didn't say much after this, because I had already interrupted the man once and didn't want to dominate the class discussion, which I know I can do at times. But I think this is where the difference lies. The difference between understanding and emotion.

Now, outside out our differences in appreciating the audio part, which Geoff didn't care for, guess seemed to believe that a sort of reflexive reading, writing notes in the margins and looking back at earlier passages, should be the primary reading - I think he even said, something like an audiobook could be something you enjoyed after a reflexive reading as a secondary reading. But my view is that the primary reading is created in the impression, the emotional content produced in the reader's own mind by the book. It is not a passive process, as I think Geoff surmised, but one in which the reader and book have a meeting of the minds. I think Wallace Stevens had this sort of thing in mind with "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm and Still":

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

I was long familiar with this poem from the anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us, which formed my introduction to poetry. But this sort of significance was first noted to me by the professor of my teaching reading class as an undergrad at Grand Valley State University - as a representation of the philosophy of Reader Response Criticism, which hold that the "text" of a work is something the reader constructs as they experience it.

Even then, I was opposed to  the view - the New Criticism, focusing on the text itself, had the right idea, but had been unjustly displaced by critics fixated on identity politics. But I have thought lately, that maybe I am more sympathetic with this view on some level than I thought. When I went to France, I didn't take any pictures. It seemed like a hassle that would impede me from actually enjoying the experience of seeing those things in the moment. The impressions on my heart were what really mattered, not a literally representation on film. I suppose the idea is similar.

I should add - I don't think Geoff is wrong. I think it might ultimately be a matter of personal preference.  Maybe I'll think more on it at a later date.

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