by William McDonald Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
For a year or so I had planned to present a paper today entitled Sometimes, a Cigar is just a Cigar, or How Freud has ended up in the English Department. Im going to Middlebury College this coming January, where my friend of fifty years Stanley Bates is a philosopher, and were going to teach a month-long course together on Freud and Thomas Mann. The Cigar paper on Freud as an imaginative writer was to be part of preparing for our mutual swan song as retirement approaches. But after quite a bit of reading and a draft of the first half of the essay, I decided that the topic was much too big for our hour together, and fell back on a subject I knew something about, but hadnt looked into carefully: Reading. But within a week I realized that the topic, if anything, dwarfed the Freud proposal in scope and difficulty; like Thomas Mann, whose mammoth novels nearly all began as short fictions, I never seem to know what Im beginning. So Ive settled for a highly episodic account of reading, with these divisions: first, an introduction about how you and I came to read, then a mad dash through the history of reading, some Stern Moral Reflections on reading as pernicious and destructive, and finally a brief paean of praise to this most necessary and delightful human practice.
I have spent virtually all my conscious life reading, and virtually all my adult life wrestling with difficult, subtle texts, mostly fictions, with bright, highly motivated college students. It has been, and remains, exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, Ive never clearly understood why everyone doesnt want my job: getting paid to read and reread great books, and then talk about them with smart people. But only in the past ten years or so have I grown interested, then fascinated, with reading itself: its protocols, its physiology, its personal and social history, its implications for ethics and for our constant narrative reconstructions of our selves. As a way of rehearsing my journey, Ill start where nearly all of us started as readers: our early childhood.
Its a wonder I became a devotee of reading at all, given the comic trauma that constitutes my first memory as a reader. I read from the age of four, and pretty well from five: about normal for a kid from a bourgeois home where reading was valued. My father, himself a teacher and a kind, tolerant man, nonetheless held with a few old ways in raising me, and one of them was to have me stand in front of him, and read aloud. One fall evening in our living room I was confidently making my way through some fantasy story about birds, and came to the word bill. I didnt recognize it as the small-letter version of my own name, and this not only tickled my father enormously at the time, but became a story that he and my mother often repeated to friends and family. Here it comes again, I would think self-pityingly, as that fateful word my own name! once more became the object of hilarity. Yet something like my little blunder happens to everyone; its part of our socialization into reading to have our mistakes and falterings fall under public scrutiny. For learning to read in every literate society begins as a public, even ritualized act before a parental or classroom instructor (Annette Kolodny), and only gradually becomes private, singular. Most of us, as adults, read to ourselves, and think of reading as a self-enclosed, even hermetic act. We may sometimes read aloud to a spouse or friend, or listen to books on tape, but for the most part we read silently.
What we recall most vividly about early and middle childhood reading is not, however, our performances but our ability to lose ourselves unself-consciously in the story, to be carried off to strange lands and events, and to resist any attempt to drag us back to the ordinary world of experience. This great pleasure our parents called escape, presuming that only the empirical world constituted reality, and that reading was a deviant, if desirable, way of perceiving that world. But its at least equally true that we read to have experiences utterly unavailable to us in the ordinary world. Children and adults alike read to experience fresh angles of vision that our limitations in public reality deny us. Think of the classic childrens books Kim, Alice in Wonderland, Heidi, The Wizard of Oz that offer us other cultures, or allegorical ways of seeing our own world differently. Sure, some kids read to escape miserable circumstances recall Jane Eyre enshrined in her curtained niche reading Bewicks Birds to avoid her sadistic cousin John Reed but I think more read to experience new things, not to escape from the old. To quote novelist Lynn Sharon Schwartz, "Reading is being alone with the self that has been freed by language.... It is an escape, not so much from reality as from the boundaries of our own voice and idioms."
Finally, I think we tend to idealize childhood reading in our memories as a period of innocence, when identification with characters in a tale seemed easy and complete, and what Romantic poets called the curse of self-consciousness hadnt yet intruded on that pure experience. Yet a little reflection lets us also remember those even earlier days of mistakes and embarrassment and struggle I remember painfully the sweat on the upper lip of my seven year old son, sitting on the couch beside me and struggling to form words which his dyslexia made almost impenetrable. I also remember how as a child I argued with friends and siblings over stories, thought some good and others bad, and puzzled over strange events even as we drank in their magic.
All this to say that once we have mastered the rudiments and can read on our own, our experience is always double. On the one hand we love reading because it absorbs us completely, carries us away; were passive consumers of the storys enchantment. But at the same time we actively project our own stories and wishes into the tale before us, half-consciously making the book as we go along. Reading is passive and active at once, naïve and assertive in varying proportions, depending on the book before us. The book shapes us, and we the book, and that interaction has a fascinating history.
Lets begin again, this time with the word itself. Read To Read. Its origins are obscure, as the OED shows:
1) Noun #1: The Stomach of an animal; the fourth stomach of a ruminant (possibly the original Old English usage: 1000 CE).
2) Noun #2: an act of perusal.
3) VERB #1: based on Sanskrit precursors: an act of deliberation, consideration, taking thought, attending to
4) VERB #2: to consider, interpret, discern (from 900), and to guess, conjecture, make out (from 1000).
5) VERB #3: more specifically, to interpret a dream or riddle, and expound that meaning to another.
6) Verb #4: to foresee or predict texts & people & nature
7) Verb #5: to look over, scan groups of letters and with understanding of what is meant by them.
There are some fifteen others
but the idea is clear enough.
So, following the noun, reading begins historically with the stomach. If that sounds implausible, heres Ezekial quoting the words of a figure he describes as the likeness of the glory of the Lord)
But you, son o man, hear what I say to you; be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth, and eat what I give you. And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and, lo, a written scroll was in it; and he spread it before me; and it had writing on the front and the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. . . . it was in my mouth and sweet as honey.
Ezekial 2:8 - 3:3. See also Revelations 10, 8-10.
And stomaching books isnt just an ancient or primitive image: heres a melancholy Renaissance version of the same idea:
I walke manie times into the pleasant fields of the Holye Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodlie greene herbs of sentences, eate them by reading, chewe them up musing, and laie them up at length in the seate of memory . . . so I may perceive the bitternesse of this miserable life.
Queen Elizabeth I. A Booke of Devotions
Eating the book: we absorb the tale into our body, not some ethereal, spiritualized imagination. We cook up stories, rehash tales, spice up a scene, ruminate over plots, reject half-baked scenarios, sneer at potboilers and soggy prose, feast on the classics, and look for a steady diet of works we can sink our teeth into. Reading is not only the deciphering of signs (Manguel), its physical, and while we today might be more interested in brain processes than the ecstatic vision of Ezekial, both emphasize the material ground, the digestion, of the text. Its in our blood, as we say; it gives us gut impulses. We are what we read. This old sense of reading also connects to prophesy, as several of the OED definitions suggest. Reading has frequently been about the future; priests read the entrails of beasts to divine events to come. Seen this way, reading entails immediate absorption, grasping the Mysterious and Unknown through that ingestion, then interpreting publicly what has been assimilated. Our ancestors dismembered the text of the animals body in order to read its secrets and so know the future; we disassemble and absorb texts to the same purpose. We may have aestheticized reading away from its violent interpretive origins, but they remain part of readings heritage and power.
Perhaps this connects to the distrust which people in less literate cultures have often felt toward readers, who seemed to find hidden meanings in mysterious signs and markings impervious to them. Writing itself can indeed seem scary to a pre-literate person because, quite unlike our culture, you cant identify it with a specific person. Platos spokesman Phaedrus rejected writing for that reason, even if he was paradoxically writing down his objections to this separation of word and speaker. If we allow writing, he said, knowledge may increase but wisdom will fade. Today we think the written word and the signature give authenticity which a mere verbal agreement lacks, but that only tells us how far we have come from the democracy of ancient Greece.
To emphasize, all these OED definitions see reading as a sophisticated skill that entails interpretation; there is no reading without absorption and interpretation. This recasts my earlier formulation of the naïve or passive and the active reader, and we can now say something more about these two categories and add a third, the reflective reader. And, from now on, my focus will be largely on fiction, though I think much of this would carry over to non-fiction, especially narrative-based disciplines such as history, biography, anthropology and sociology, law, and psychoanalysis.
The naïve reader feels himself transported, carried away, taken elsewhere: Open Sesame could be his motto. J. Hillis Miller describes this sort of reading as allegro vivace, and terms literature in this mode as a mode of inauguration, a magical opening on a fictional territory. As Ezekial suggests, there are traces of theology in this view: passively submit yourself to the holy image or text, the unchanging word, and you shall be enlightened (Joseph Allen Boone). A more secular version of this naiveté we call reading for entertainment, where we privilege absorption and unself-conscious pleasure and suppress any critical reflection on what were reading. So-called beach reads and other overt forms of holiday reading fall into this arena. Naïve reading has still another level Ill term the sentimental": its not strictly passive, but limits reflection to the softening memories of childhood reading, and holds up that memory of immersion as the ideal way of reading. Its like wishing to be pre-pubescent again: to escape the self-consciousness that fully conscious sexual awareness brings. And finally, the naïve reader resists all discussions of reading: literature explains itself, some of my students say (and some writers, most famously Samuel Beckett, agrees with them): all this criticism and reflection just undermines the pure experience of reading.
Next is the active reader (Im now concentrating on late adolescent and adult readers, though some of this can apply to children). Its a fairly self-evident category: readers produce books as they read, they dont just indeed cant just passively absorb. The physiology of reading confirms this: Reading entails scanning a text to bring its elements into focus in the fovea, the area of clearest vision in the retina. A French ophthalmologist discovered more than a hundred years ago that our eyes move jerkily across the page, scanning a few words (a process termed saccades) then pausing (termed fixations) to send neuronal signals.
Emile Javal, cited in Manguel, 37. See the two Fietz articles and Marlana Coe for more up-to-date accounts of the same phenomena.
Fixations take .5 seconds or less; saccades .25 seconds or less. We read in the pauses, not the scanning. During those pauses things really get complicated, since reading includes far more than the passive perception of letters, words and sentences: inference, memory, judgment, emotion, prior knowledge, and so on, are all involved.
André Roch Lecours. Illiteracy and Brain Damage in Origins of the Human Brain (Cambridge, 1933), 3, argues that for our brains to develop language functions fully we need to learn a system of visual signs from our society. In other words, full development requires learning to read.
Depending on what youre reading, different parts of the brain come into play simultaneously so that we can instantly form all the connections that make rich comprehension possible. So we dont capture a book the way a tape recorder captures a voice; instead we elaborately and uniquely reconstruct the text through the virtually inexhaustible set of connections that our interaction produces. Cognitive psychologists agree that we construct the text that we read as our past knowledge and feelings come into play with the new text before us. Writes one, Reading is a generative process that reflects the readers disciplined attempt to construct one or more readings within the rules of language. (Wittrock) To bolster these scientific studies, Ill only add brief testimonies from two rather well know writers:
"One must be an inventor to read well. . . . Then there's creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world."
Emerson. "The American Scholar"
Books are to be called for and supplied on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep; but in the highest sense an exercise, a gymnastic struggle, that the reader is to do something for himself.
Finally, we have the reflective reader, my most complex category, which does require a brief typology. It begins with the self-conscious awareness of reading fiction. Reflective readers consider how the text is shaped. They have, in short, interests in the form of the books theyre reading, and its genre: Remember that even as a kid how you asked, What kind of a story is it? Next, reflective readers always consider the effects of reading, both a texts means of creating those effects its rhetoric and its subversive power to alter our world. On a closely related subject, reflective readers also confront questions of knowledge gleaned from the text. The word narrative coalesced from the Sanskrit root Gna, to know, and comes to us through the Latin for knowing (gnarus) and telling (narro). Narratives both know and tell, both absorb knowledge and express it. That knowledge includes both psychological reflection and moral reflection.
Next comes re-reading, in both thought and deed. Ill go so far as to say that reading is rereading; even as we read a book for the first time, we are in effect rereading the earlier sections of the book, reinterpreting its events and claims, as the story unfolds, and half-consciously recalling similar stories from earlier reading. Schema and correction: its how we apprehend the world, and how we read. And of course theres the deliberate decision to reread a book. In childhood we did it, often, to repeat an experience exactly think how kids object when you dads and granddads deviate even a little from the text of a beloved story but in adulthood we know that to revisit a text at different points of our lives is to reassess both the narrative and ourselves. Thornton Wilder used to reread James Joyces joyous Finnegans Wake every year, and while that may be a bit much for most of us, passionate readers often return to texts that have moved them and from which they have learned much. People like me, once again, get paid to reread great books: another unimaginable luxury.
Finally, reflective readers notice whats not there. This characterizes everyone from Talmudic scholars to post-structural, high-tech readers. There are several kinds of things that "aren't there" in narrative texts:
1. Gaps in the story. Narratives are always riddled with gaps; theyre necessarily incomplete and fissured. What did the writer omit? What didnt God say in Genesis? What couldnt Huck Finn say to Jim? Gaps can include enclosed or secret spaces that exert pressure in the narrative but which we cant enter. Arguably, it is only through omissions that a story gains its dynamism. (Wolfgang Iser)
2. The preconditions for a text. What social, political, economic, and aesthetic conditions brought about its appearance?
3. Various kinds of cultural attributions that arent overtly present but still shape our reading before it begins: when you pick up, say, "Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, you already know that it is canonical, and that influences how you read, and judge, it. As John Locke observed 300 years ago, how differently you'd read the Bible if you found it in a sidewalk book rack and read it as a secular, continuous narrative, and not a Holy Book: as a serial, not a monument.
In sum, reflective readers may be transported by a text, but they also know that they must perform certain actions, be active and performative, for reading to succeed. To cite Wolfgang Iser:
One text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. In this very act, the dynamics of reading are revealed. By making his decision, he implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decisions.
Heres a more introverted, and famous, passage from Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured.
"In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself."
So, what makes reading possible, and what do we bring to the book? Reading is made possible by the individual psyche, but also by history: our personal histories as readers; by all the presuppositional baggage (Valentine Cunninghams phrase) that we bring to the text; by the history of the genre were reading, and its cumulative effect on both writers and readers; and by the history and sociology of reading itself: who could read, and when; what did they read; how did they acquire books to read; why did they want to read; and most difficult of all, what was their individual experience as readers in, say 300 BCE or in Tudor England? As you can imagine, whole books have already been written on each of these subjects the history of reading is a hot topic these days, and a very complex one and in this section Im going to isolate just a few ideas and tell a few representative stories about reading in the West as a foundation for saying something about the pleasures of reading today.
First, what is it that you read? Books, you answer confidently. But virtually no authors have written books. They write manuscripts: publishers, printers, and binders design and print books. (On-line and self-publishing software are changing this rapidly.) But the format of modern books depends on many things that our ancestors lacked.
Ancient texts, for example, were written without word spaces or capitals or in some cases even vowels, and were only read aloud: reading and speaking are the same verb in the biblical languages Aramaic and Hebrew. Ancient readers heard the words, and as St. Augustine instructed us, felt them to be physical, virtually alive, equivalent to what they expressed. Its very hard to read silently without word separations. It actually requires you to use different parts of the brain: for example, Japanese with cerebral lesions can no longer read kanji ideographs, but can read kana phonetic script, which lacks word separation. The first experiments with punctuation we know about occurred circa 200 BCE in the work of Aristophanes of Byzantium, head of the library at Alexandria and brilliant editor of nearly all the major classical texts in his keeping. But he didnt start a trend; there are only haphazard appearances of it in succeeding generations.
There are a number of great reading performances preserved in ancient texts, beginning with gods in many different traditions, who dictated truths to scribes such as Moses or Muhammad, who then read them to their followers. Does God just dictate? Can the gods themselves read? Not likely: certainly no Greek god ever showed an interest in reading, or even hearing, any of the tales that enshrined their fame; can you picture Aphrodite pouring over a book? Did Jesus read, or only hear, the Hebrew scriptures? We dont know for sure, though he says It is written all the time, and asks people repeatedly if they have read such-and-such a passage from the scriptures. He was certainly literate to some degree, since in the midst of rescuing the woman taken in adultery from stoning, he twice writes words on the ground (John 8:8) but we dont know what they are. But religious texts, in many traditions, are read with the entire body, swaying or even dancing slowing to the cadence of the holy words so that no trace can be lost, a tradition preserved by some Orthodox believers we see at the Wailing Wall. Rule nine of the 12th century Islamic rules for reading states that the Koran be read loud enough for the reader to hear it himself, because reading means distinguishing between sounds, eliminating any distractions from the external world (Manguel, 46). Inspired ancient readers, religious or secular, Muslim or Roman, performed the work before them; it was more like an opera aria than anything else. More prosaically, think of Joseph before Potiphar in Genesis, reading his favorite tales. His story points to how reading was valued in many ancient cultures: your prized slaves did it for you, while you remained magnificently illiterate. Professional readers and scribes were like psychic chauffeurs, carrying you off to places you wanted to be.
There are also a few instructive tales of mysterious silent reading. According to that shamelessly indiscriminate compiler Plutarch, Alexander the Great once stood before his troops and read a letter from his mother without making a sound. His soldiers were completely bewildered as to what he was doing. The most famous instance occurs in Book VI of in Augustines Confessions, when he and some Milanese companions come upon Ambrose reading silently in his cell. He describes Ambrose meditating with metaphors reminiscent of Ezekial:
nor could I tell of that hidden mouth of his [the mouth of his heart], which joys it tasted in the rumination of your [Gods] bread. . . . When he was reading, his eyes went over the page and his heart looked into the sense, but voice and tongue were resting. Often when we came to him. . . we found him reading, always to himself and never otherwise; we would sit in silence for a long time, not venturing to interrupt him in his intense concentration on his task, and then we would go away again.
So accustomed to rhetorical performances by readers and himself a professor of rhetoric, Augustine and his compatriots can only watch the silent show as a kind of muted, Zen performance; like a puzzled detective, Augustine offers half a dozen reasons for explaining why Ambrose reads to himself: everything from avoiding interruption by questions to, rather desperately, resting his voice. And when he discovered that Ambrose never read aloud, Augustine just didnt have a cultural space into which he could slip this experience. For us, its a powerful archetype of the turn inward, the invention and elevation of the private life, that Augustines own book went on to celebrate; it would be hard to exaggerate how much the first Western autobiographer gleaned not only from the teachings, but from Ambroses act of silent reading. The story so affected the itinerant Italian poet Petrarch that he imagined a dialogue between himself and Augustine on reading, and gave Augustine the following lovely speech:
Whenever you read a book and come across any wonderful phrase which you feel stir or delight your soul, dont merely trust the power of your own intelligence, but force yourself to learn them by heart and make them familiar by meditating on them, so that whenever an urgent case of affliction arises, youll have the remedy ready as if it were written in your own mind. When you come to any passages that seem to you useful, make a firm mark against them, which may serve as lime to your memory, less otherwise they might fly away. Secretum meum II.
Note that Augustine has Petrarch reading intertextually and making a new creation for himself out of his reading: not just a passive reader of sacred writings, but a maker of texts. To my knowledge, Petrarchs is the first description of modern (scholarly) reading, and of the practice of textual harvesting that dominated the Renaissance.
Greco-Romans could read silently, but rarely did: rather the performance is what mattered. Herodotus won fame by reading his Histories to pan-Hellenic audiences at the Olympics. More poignantly, theres Thucydides famous tale of captured Athenian soldiers in the salt pits of Syracusa literally talking their way out of captivity and almost certain death by reciting lines from Euripides that their captors prized as well. Its unlikely that those Athenians all memorized those lines from attending a single performance with one exception, Aeschyluss Oresteia, there were no repeat performances in Greek tragedy before the 4th century BCE so we can infer (and Aristophanes supports this in The Knights, where Demosthenes reads a written oracle silently) that at least partial manuscripts of plays were in circulation. Euripides even models the activity: in his Hippolytus Theseus reads in silence a letter held by his dead wife. So these Athenians read but almost always to quote, to perform, not to savor silently. What would be the point of that? Herodotus might ask. Further, ancient writers had little reason to make reading swifter; the canon was small, and texts were typically memorized, so slowness was a necessity (Paul Saenger). (Ancient readers read a small number of books many times; we read a large number of books once unless were lucky enough to have my job!). Its highly probable that these ancient silent readers read not words but sounds (i.e. phonically), since they had only been trained to read orally and since they saw the written symbols literally as incarnated sounds; seeing whole groups of words instantly, as we do, comes from long training in a literate world, not an oral one. So the ancient scroll whether in hieroglyphs, Sanskrit or Greek was really a sound recording, not a text in our sense. Auditoria were originally built by wealthy Romans as part of their civic responsibilities to host public readings; Romans were mad about such performances that lasted from several hours to several days, and every author if he wanted to make it had to be on the boards. Lend me your ears, as Antony begins, repeating a common phrase at least 300 years old by Shakespeares time. (A small sidebar: I cant help but compare the great Roman performers to our Redlands weekly gathering of forty. In our culture reading a manuscript is OK for literary artists, where every word allegedly matters, but otherwise is usually considered dull, boring, and worst of all something scholars do; my reading this paper to you is anachronistic, a curious reprise of our history as readers.) But there were some Romans, such as the famous Spanish-born lawyer and rhetorician Quintillian, who valued private, meditative reading:
"Reading. . . does not hurry past us with the speed of oral delivery; we can reread a passage again and again if we are in doubt about it or wish to fix it in the memory. We must return to what we have read and reconsider it with care. . . . We should read none save the best authors and such as are least likely to betray our trust in them, while our reading must be almost as thorough as if we were actually transcribing what we read. Nor must we study it merely in parts, but must read through the whole work from cover to cover and then read it afresh."
Institutio Oratoria. prob. 96 CE
And most famously, Julius Caesar, in the midst of his debate with Cato in 63 BCE, silently read a love letter he had just received, written by Catos own sister! (Plutarch, Brutus.) In the event Caesar was forced to read the note aloud, and Cato was humiliated.
To understand our modern book, we have to remember the major shift from the 2nd century CE forward from tablet to scroll to codex (a sheaf of bound pages). Clay and wax were great for tablets and the durable but brittle papyrus for scrolls, but parchment or vellum (both made from the skins of animals, but in different ways) could be cut or folded into all sorts of different sizes. The 1st century Roman poet Martial exulted over the new technology:
Homer on parchment pages!
The Iliad and all the adventures
Of Ulysses, foe of Priams kingdom!
All locked within a piece of skin
All folded into several little sheets.
So by the 4th century CE treated animal skins had largely vanquished earlier technologies (and Egypts valuable papyrus monopoly), and held the floor until paper appeared in Italy nearly eight hundred years later. With the codex you could move around much more easily, "leafing" thru the pages. (Compare turning your scroll by hand from left to right, or scrolling with the computer.) Codex texts had writing on both sides of the leaf, thus doubling the words in a book without adding weight; they also came with margins for glosses and illustration. And now the length of a scroll didnt dictate arbitrary breaks in content (the reason why, for example, our modern Iliad and Odyssey each have 24 books). Codex was even useful for early Christians and other underground groups, who could hide their scriptures in their clothes, unlike a bulky scroll.
Irish monks introduced word separation at the end of the 7th century CE, as in the Book of Mulling, an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels that dates from 690. At about the same time the Irish adapted the Latin videre, to see, as a word to describe reading. This marked the switch from reading as a rhetorical activity appealing to the ear to an activity of the mind appealing to the eye, a changeover that altered decisively how we think of reading. It was also easier for the Irish monks to learn a foreign language, Latin, if the words were separated. In addition they developed some rudimentary punctuation marks that gradually spread across Europe. But as at the Alexandrian Library, it was still common for monks to read aloud in the scriptorum; you can imagine the din!
In 529 St. Benedict founded his order at Monte Cassino, and Article 38 of his rule spelled out the proper way for texts to be read. At the meal time of the brothers, there should always be reading; no one may dare to take up the book at random and begin to read there; but he who is about to read for the whole week shall begin his duties on Sunday. And, entering upon his office after mass and Communion, he shall ask all to pray for him, that God may avert from him the spirit of elation. And this voice shall be said in the oratory three times by all, he however beginning it; O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. And thus, having received the benediction, he shall enter upon his duties as reader. And there shall be the greatest silence at table, so that no whispering or any voice save the readers may be heard. And whatever I needed, in the way of food, the brethren shall pass to each other in turn, so that no one need ask for anything. (Bettenson)Yet no one complained because that was how one read; we have no record from the ancient world of any protest against the cacophony of sound that must have filled their libraries. (Theres a great recreation of it in Umberto Ecos novel, The Name of the Rose.) Indeed, some abbots suspected silent reading because the reader might be daydreaming, or because he might develop private thoughts an invisible heretic! about a passage that could not be immediately corrected.
Reading itself remained suspect in many quarters, as writing had been for Plato. Consider this anecdote: in 1333 the painter Simone Martini drew a book in the hands of the Virgin as she received the Annunciation. This caused a big furor: can the archetype of all women actually be recognized as a private reader this despite all the well-read Abbesses, the fully literate aristocratic women, even the middle class girls who were trained for the convent? And what was Mary reading, anyway? And would she still be reading when the Angel and the dove arrived? The Martini painting was indeed scandalous in its day, but by the 15th century it was common to portray Mary reading or teaching the baby Jesus to read, or Marys mother Anne teaching her to read, or even to show mothers teaching their children to read.
It may have offended the pious to show Mary reading, but it was a different story for aristocratic women: the sculpted tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204) shows her holding a book and reading, presumably a Book of Hours or some other devotional text. And twenty years before Martinis painting Giotto portrayed the Virgin in an Arena chapel fresco holding but not reading a Book of Hours.
Rogier van der Weydens Virgin and Child (c. 1450) even shows the infant Jesus tearing a page out of the Hebrew scripture to indicate his spiritual superiority over its outmoded thought.
Medieval readers, like ancient poets and rhapsodes, developed prodigious memories, frequently by likening a text to great monuments a palace, an entire city, and especially a cathedral and then assembling the text geographically within it. The most common "book" in circulation in the medieval world was the Book of the Dead, essentially a census of district memory kept by an itinerant clerk who came to town every several years and recorded who had died. Lists of the dead could not easily be turned into a memorizable narrative: hence it was written down.
But for all that, the move toward silent reading had begun, and one abbot in the ninth century even drafted rules for its proper conduct (Cipolla). By the 10th century CE silent reading was common enough to be unremarkable (Manguel, 43). The invention of eyeglasses in Venice or Florence circa 1284 soon multiplied the number of those who could physically read. So silent reading gradually triumphed, as we know, but echoes of the oral world persist in our phrases today: we say of a letter that Ive heard from so-and-so and that a certain passage doesnt sound right even though weve never actually heard it. We still speak of auditors, recalling the medieval clerk who listened to your accounts and remembered them (something that might have proved useful at Enron); we also use the term in universities for those who attend lectures but cannot participate: they merely audit in silence. One more intriguing transition from the ear to the eye: medieval artists painted pictures friezes on outside walls between the floor and roof of buildings, and also in those spaces between the levels. Each frieze illustrated some sort of narrative. That's how "story" got to be a word in architecture. Two-story buildings, three story buildings, so on.
One of the loveliest early descriptions of reading silently comes from Saint Isaac of Syria:
I practice silence, that the verses of my readings and prayers should fill me with delight. And when the pleasure of understanding them silences my tongue, then, as in a dream, I enter a state when my senses and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.
In silent reading words are freed from the time required to pronounce them. The act creates a new interior geography where reflection, memory, expansion, rapid imaginative flights, the heretical thoughts some abbots feared, and yes, even pleasure can all take place unobserved, beyond all censorship. Luthers private study of the Bible was on the horizon. Gabriel Josipivici has a valuable thesis about this: In the medieval universe, he writes, the world was like an entirely readable book; everything in existence was revealed, as it was to Dante. When the synthesis, and the confident interpretive codes that enabled it, collapsed, the world became only partially readable, uncertain, unstable: this led directly to what we call realism in writing, both artistic and scientific. Realisms plain-style language seeks to overcome that uncertainty by appearing to ground reality solidly in the quotidian, the empirical, the everyday.
Clayton and Rothstein's summary/quotation of Roland Barthes S/Z: Balzacean realism is effective, for Barthes, not because it refers us to a world outside of literature but because of its continuous reference to anonymous textual codes that are always already read. From S/Z: "The 'realistic' artist never places 'reality' at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies." (167) A beautiful woman, Barthes claims, can only be described in terms of a citation of other women in painting, literature and mythology: "thus beauty is referred to an infinity of codes: lovely as Venus? but Venus lovely as what?" (34) The circularity of the codes itself insures the effect of the real. (my emphasis) "Once the infinite circularity of codes is posited, the body itself cannot escape it.... Thus, even within realism, the codes never stop." (55)
So instead of Dantes encompassing vision we have a way of narrating that creates stability in its place, and seems to give us an unmediated version of the world.
Moving forward quickly, how did a 16th century plebeian person read? In Carlo Ginzberg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Miller the miller Menocchio, from the village of Friulia took only what he wanted from texts like a storehouse or pantry he extracted material and reassembled it for what he wanted it to mean. We now know also that scholars frequently did the same thing: for example, Gabriel Harvey, satiric poet and friend of Edmund Spenser, read the classics assiduously in a way you can still see if you walk down that corridor and see the students fanning out their source books in the main room of the Smiley Library. When reading Livy, for example, he would spread out the leaves of his book like spokes in a Ferris wheel, and spin it around so he could copy choice bits into his commonplace book (Lisa Jardine, in Anthony Grafton). And this was the norm, not a specialized practice of writing term papers: in the Renaissance books werent things you typically sat down and necessarily read straight through (Kevin Sharpe). Harvey and his contemporaries typically shopped around for what they needed, or what struck them. They understood reading as a kind of digestion, a process of extracting the essence of books and of incorporating that essence into oneself. They would break books into fragments via copying, then enter them in different ways in one of several commonplace books or other works in progress. In other words, they would search a book for quotes, and then, in a Machiavellian manner, pilfer and take what they needed. This meant that reading and writing were much more intertwined; you read in order to copy down and preserve. In short, they were much like quilt makers, assembling new blankets out of patches and fragments of cloth from older sources. Reading belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things. These readers consulted books in order to get their bearings in perilous times, not to pursue knowledge for its own sake or to amuse themselves or to deaden time. It was the rise of the novel that encouraged readers to go straight through, and to read more passively: segmented readers were necessarily always active, alert, and perhaps narrow in their confirming selections.
Now for a Racy French Interlude. People in late 18th century France read in a radically different culture for reading than we enjoy (Robert Darnton). French fiction and autobiography in the years 1760-89 prized the texts of several famous writers Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot but there was also plenty of banned and illegal stuff that we now know was immensely popular. These books didnt bring down the monarchy by themselves, but they didnt hurt. First and foremost, there was pornography, and lots of it, though that word wasnt used; in fact the concept of a separate category for porn didnt exist until the 19th century. (Rousseau reportedly termed it literature read with one hand, a phrase whose popularity has not abated.) One publication (1781), for example, portrayed Marie Antoinette as a lesbian, an orgy lover and the seducer of her eleven year old son. Much porn from this period cast aristocrats or clergy in leading roles; it was overtly political, even rebellious, not just erotic. There were also Secret Biographies and faked Memoirs and assemblages of Anecdotes of famous people (esp. of Louis the XVs mistress, the elevated commoner Comtesse du Barry): these were like longer versions of our tabloids and daytime talk shows. And there were futuristic novels (early sci-fi) that were political satire (my favorite title is The Year 2440: A Dream if There Ever Was One).
Whats interesting is that all these were lumped together under the title philosophical, since the philosophes were what we would call radical intellectuals, opposed to monarchy and conducting their lives rationally and civilly. Anything that upset the status quo, from gossip to porn, could be published in one volume of philosophy. And reading such material was dangerous: If you were caught with these books, even just delivering them, you could be branded and deported. So readers were encouraged to tear up the cheaply printed pamphlets and interleave them: put your favorite salacious tales into your Gospel! Viva la France!
As we move deeper into the Enlightenment, another interesting reading habit comes to life; people start reading outside. You dont see readers in nature in the Renaissance, but you do in Joseph Andrews or Pride and Prejudice or in the countless sentimental pastoral paintings of the late 18th century. To accommodate this new desire, more and more smallish, portable books were produced in the period and into the 19th century, but the mass printing of pocket books (a book specifically designed for travelers) didnt happen until 1935. Thats when Alan Lane, senior editor at Englands Bodley Head, returning to London after a week-end with Agatha Christie and her husband, discovered nothing he wanted to read at the train station, and conceived the idea of the small all-paper book. He needed a catchy name for the series: considered dolphin or porpoise, but these were already claimed by his competitor Faber and Faber, so he settled on . . . Penguin. Bookstore branches had long before appeared in English train stations, but now they had a truly portable and cheap product to sell. Short stories become more popular because reading one matched the time required for a commuter to reach the city. By Lanes time books were bound in cloth (not leather) or cardboard, making them more accessible, and the cloth could carry advertisements, as could a paper cover. The modern book was born.
Before leaving the history of reading, heres some follow-up to the question raised by the Martini painting of the Virgin: reading and gender. Throughout the medieval world men (naturally) debated as to whether girls should be taught to read; most said no, and, some aristocratic children and learned abbesses aside, they carried the day. Even as late as 1660 in England, for example, very few women could read at all, and even by 1750 only 36% of the brides in London could sign their names in wedding registers. So for a long time just before the novel really took over literary culture in the late 18th, urban males were the readers. Possibly this offers one reason why the novel has been the genre most read by women, and where women writers first gained a wide public. Did women and the novel re-awaken to independence together? Several historians think so (Margaret Doody).
Sticking with the question of reading and gender, here are two fascinating catalogues of women readers in the 19th century. At the age of thirteen Charlotte Brontë wrote the following on the art of writing (original punctuation here, and throughout):
"How much people in general are deceived in their ideas of great authors. Every sentence is by them thought the outpourings of a mind overflowing with the sublime and beautiful. Alas, did they but know the trouble it often costs me to bring some exquisite passage neatly to a close, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word, to polish and round the period and to do many other things. They would soon lower the high standard at which our reputation is fixed. But still the true poet and proser have many moments of unalloyed delight while preparing their lucubrations for the press and public."
At eighteen (1834), advising a more conventionally educated classmate, Ellen Nussey, on what to read:
If you like poetry let it be first rate: Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don't admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth and Southey. Now Ellen don't be startled at the names of Shakespeare and Byron. Both these were great men and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the Comedies of Shakespeare and the Don Juan, perhaps the Cain of Byron though the latter is a magnificent poem and read the rest fearlessly.
For history read Hume, Rollin, and the Universal history if you can I never did. For fiction read Scott alone: all novels after his are worthless. For biography, read Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Southey's Life of Nelson, Lockhart's Life of Burns, Moore's Life of Sheridan, Wolfe's Remains. For Natural History read Bewick, and Audubon, and Goldsmith, and White of Selbourne. For divinity, but your brother Henry will advise you there....
Arguably even more impressive is the reading regimen kept by the young Princess Victoria, discovered among papers belonging to the Duchess of Kent, her mother, in 2001 at Windsor Castle. Entitled modestly, List of books read by princess Victoria, the leather-bound volume is in her own hand :
It is a mix of 20 religious texts, 27 French books, including Voltaires histories, 13 volumes of classical Latin and grammar, including the works of Ovid, Virgil and Horace, the great historical works of the age, the poetry of Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Shakespeare, and Goldsmith, treatises in business and astronomy, Blackstones classic commentary on the laws of England studied when 15 and compendiums on geography, natural history and moral teachings. Victoria spoke wonderful French, some Italian, adequate Latin, had an advanced knowledge of astronomy, business, history and the major poets, and enjoyed a grasp of world affairs far superior to many of the twenty Prime Ministers who worked to serve her. Private lessons at Kensington palace accompanied her inquiries. By the age of nine, the Princess was studying twenty-five texts, including A Concise
History of England, Markhams History of France, An Introduction to Astronomy, Geography and the Use of Globes, The Catechism of the Church of England to be learned by Heart Pinnocks Catechism of Geography, and the Book of Trades. By the time she was 16 the Princess had advanced her poetic learning to Drydens Aeneid and Popes Iliad, was tackling Guys Astronomy, was reading in French Voltaires History of Charles XII, and was studying Goldsmiths History of England, Clarendons History of the Rebellion, had completed Goldsmiths histories of Greece and Rome and Magnalls Historical Questions. For political and literary advancement she was ploughing through Volumes I and II of The Spectator, and was learning by rote the Acts of the Apostles. It is a curriculum so erudite that the historian Andrew Roberts said: If you attempted today, even at a top public school, to get a child to learn as much as that, you would be had up for child abuse. (Reid)
For all of this intimidating achievement, reading especially the reading of fiction has always been highly suspect. (You probably noticed that, unlike Charlotte Brontë, Victoria read only the very proper Goldsmith among the novelists). Ive put together a small compendium a commonplace book of my own on the psychological and moral destructiveness of reading:
v Foolish beyond belief are those who strive to win eternal fame by issuing books, declared Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, ... watch how pleased they are with themselves when they are praised by the ordinary reader, when someone points them out in a crowd with There is that remarkable man, when they are advertised in front of the booksellers shops.
v Books have been written against books remember Acts 26: 24, where Festus, the procreator of Judea, admonishes Paul Your great learning is turning you mad and institutions founded to suppress books, from the Council of Trents issuing of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1559 (repealed only in 1966) to American slave owners to the Nazi book-burnings Freud remarked tartly in 1933 that at least they werent burning people this time: he was premature and the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie.
v The seventeenth-century poet, Alessandro Tassoni, advised: There is no doubt, but that study is an occasion of exciting lust, and of giving rise to many obscene actions... Hence, as I suppose it is, that we find, in Euripides and Juvenal, that the learned women of antiquity were accused of immodesty.
v Students, wrote Richard Burton in that great encyclopedic work of the 17th century, The Anatomy of Melancholy: Students are commonly troubled with ... gouts, catarrhs, rheums, wasting, indigestion, bad eyes, stone, and colick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting. The scholar, he concluded, is not a happy man.
v To forestall the physical deformities caused by excessive reading, the nineteenth-century German doctor and pedagogue Moritz Schreber developed a variety of orthopedic devices to force children to sit straight and keep their chins up. Take his straightener (Geradehalter), a device that prevented its wearer from bending forward while writing or reading, which he claimed had done the trick with his own offspring. Or the headholder, meant to promote proper posture by pulling the wearers hair as soon as the head began to droop.
v On Tuesday last, reported the Glasgow Journal on June 21st, 1742, as an Old Man was lying in the Green reading a Book, he was attackd by the Town Bull, who tore two of his Ribs from the Back Bone, and broke his Back Bone. His Life is despaird of. The price of learning can be high indeed.
v Milton allegedly went blind from excessive reading, and diarist Samuel Pepys thought he would: 19 March 1668: So parted and I to bed, my eyes being very bad and I know not how in the world to abstain from reading.
v He might be a very clever man by nature for aught I know, wrote Robert Hall of Dr. Andrew Kippis, the compiler of encyclopedias, , but he laid so many books upon his head that his brains could not move. Bookishness was held to be addictive, psychopathological, as the Manchester physician John Ferriar versified in his Bibliomania:
What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book-disease.
v On visiting Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in 1786, the German novelist Sophie von la Roche found an unnamed man, doubtless a historian, in the lowest cells, with books all around him. She also met Margaret Nicholson, George IIIs would-be assassin, sitting reading Shakespeare.
v FAUST continues to be the archetype of the scholar gone mad, tempted by his vast learning into selling his soul
. And the patron saint of those misled by reading, Don Quixote himself: Thus, Cervantes writes ... he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits. The 18th and 19th century novel is filled with characters, nearly all of them women, who follow in Cervantes comi-tragic footsteps: Walter Shandy, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlowe, Werther, Frankensteins monster (who read Plutarch and Paradise Lost), Emma Bovary, Dorothea Brook of Middlemarch, Henry Jamess Isobel Archer all the way to common women of the era: At the Gloucester asylum, one Sarah Oakey, a Cheltenham laundress, was admitted in 1826 suffering from melancholia, supposed to be brought on by reading novels.
Reading, in short, gentlemen, damages your mind, corrupts your emotions, and imperils your soul. Beware!
One final point concerning reading and gender: In a recent modern study, Elizabeth Flynn asked small groups of college women and men to react to three different short stories (James Joyces Araby from Dubliners, Hemingways Hills like White Elephants, and Virginia Woolfs Kew Gardens), Elizabeth Flynn found that male students sometimes react to disturbing stories by rejecting them or dominating them (e.g., that vulnerable female character is crazy), a strategy few women readers use. Women were more receptive to texts initially, and then more easily broke free of what Flynn termed the readers submissive entanglements in a text. They often evaluated characters and events with greater critical detachment than the men. Women in her study turned out to be more confident readers than speakers, men more confident speakers than readers.
Ill conclude with two short sections, one on the ethics of reading written against the charges brought by the moralizing critics I just cited, and a final word a panegyric, really on reading.
Defenders of fictions moral value typically cite Dickens or Twain both great public performers of their own work or Harriet Beecher Stowe or George Orwell, or any of the other novelists whose writing has spurred social reform. Well and good, but I think there are ethical dimensions built into the reading of narrative itself in fiction mainly, but also in law and history not simply in its outcomes. Philosopher Richard Eldridge puts it powerfully (and Eldridge is, by the way, a former student of my friend in Middlebury)
"It is in and through narrative itself that we lead our lives as persons. . . . Persons are not, it seems, 'just' real material entities. . . . They lead lives out of ongoing narratives, make choices out of them. These narratives and the lives and choices that they shape are in turn structured by assumptions about narrative unity, coherence, and closure that are tested in narrative writing in general, and in particular in fiction, where the influence of contingencies can yield to the imperative to achieve coherence. . . . It seems that literary narratives and personhood are, one might say, internal to one another. . . . We can attain moral consciousness only as we see our personhood and its demands reflected to us in the lives of others that are recounted to us in narrative art, while our collective responses themselves determine narrative art's relevant and proper exemplars." (11-12, 60)
We spend our waking, and sleeping, hours devising fresh narratives of our circumstances and history, or reviving familiar ones as we need them.
Its not just literary people making these claims: heres hard-nosed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker on the same theme: The plots of fiction are like those of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits. . . . The intrigues of people in conflict can multiply out in so many ways that no one could possibly play out the consequences of all courses of action in the minds eye. Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them (How the Mind Works, 542-43)
We constantly rehearse upcoming events how many of you have thought about your dinner in the past thirty minutes? or reorganize past ones to bring them into line with our wishes, needs and hopes. In short, we spend the great majority of our time imagining fictive possibilities none of them are actually real and out of them constructing narratives that explain and justify our actions. Morality is built into the stories we concoct. So reading fiction thoughtfully turns out to be enormously useful because it lets us see the long term moral consequences of human actions in a way that our own limited vision, or philosophers tidy thought experiments, cannot; our ethical lives take shape over time and amidst many actions, and long fictions, specifically the novel, give us a great testing arena to ponder our choices. We see how others have maintained ethical behavior in the face of difficult or uncontrolled events. We learn more from witnessing the actions of particular persons in particular circumstances than we do from maxims or general rules about ethical living. Novels also show us how our emotions have epistemological value because they are discriminating responses connected with beliefs about how things are and what is important (Nussbaum). The novels formal organization and its intensifying of life brings moral questions into the foreground, and gives us perspectives that we could never attain on our own. Reading well makes us better readers of ourselves, lets us see how our values, both chosen and intuitive, shape our characteristic ways of narrating the world.
In his new book A History of Reading, Steven Roger Fischer argues that reading has given humanitys fluent readers a sixth sense or hypersense, a perception humanity did not possess before writings elaboration in which we do not see words nor hear language but integrate the very images, emotions, and sense data these bundled symbols convey.
Understanding the characteristic ways in which you narrate your life, how you tell your stories to others and especially to yourself, is central to self-knowledge.
I want to mention one further kind of moral obligation entailed in reading certain narratives, taken from the Australian critic Ross Chambers. Narratives, either historical or fictional, about traumatic events the Holocaust, AIDS survivor narratives point to the social responsibility of reading well. In these instances reading is literally at the cost of the suffering and death of the writer. Such reading is not automatically a gain for the reader; you dont unambiguously enrich your experience. Instead we have an anxiety when we read the text of the dead: we enter "mourning" for them (think of Anne Frank). And with that we inherit the obligation not to forget to memorialize even as we know that we will forget, turn away. Were reading too late" to prevent death: we can never, reading such texts, be responsive enough. So we are survivors reading, and share the task of mourning, and a moral responsibility to the dead. All writing depends on the generosity of the reader to bring it alive [Manguel. 179].
Finally, Ill say that all of the pleasures of reading are interwoven fully with the ethical knowledge and responsibility that comes with reading. Pleasure and the good are at one as we read reflectively, if not always as we live. My admonitions to you:
v Occasionally read out loud: perform the script in front of you.
v Read thoughtfully and slowly, and for enlightened beguilement (Wendy Steiner).
v Read for form, for narrative structure, for connections to other narratives, and for whats not there in the book, and in your own silent self-narrations.
v Above all, read a novel with attention not as you would a textbook or a newspaper, to extract information but as you would a LOVE LETTER, hearing the voice in and below the words, reading slowly, fully, roundly, repeatedly. Theres an erotics of reading well: paying attention is the secret of both love & reading. Attend to what you do, remembering that the Sanskrit names reading as an act of full attention.
v Make a list of the books youve kissed.
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