by Miles Beller
So many videos to ogle and view. Mountains of MP3s to cycle through. So many websites to click and drag, and all those minutes of mobile gab (beamed, no less, via that slick bluetooth set!). IMing friends all over the screen, texting and social networking erupting in a viral scene. Millions of virtual lives to be born, satellite TV and on-demand porn. HD radio, 3D movies, too; and don’t forget podcasts and ichats…whew! And consider all those mates now signing online, ready to type: “I love you, be mine.” So many webcams providing a peek, at so many strangers lurking to meet.
Why are you reading this?
Detail, Rembrandt. Philosopher Reading, 1631. Oil on canvas.
Scores of sexy applications and potential electronic assignations and you’re doing what? You’re reading? How quaint. How archaic. How antediluvian. OMG!!! Reading is so last millennium, so démodé, so, well, (LMAO), reactionary. Why open a book when you can fast-forward through the movie? Why consult a newspaper when you can cruise online clips? In the beginning was the word and it wasn’t Google. Reading is old and arthritic. Reading is ancient and infirm; recreation for oddballs, cranks, and losers. Get modern. Get multitasking. Better dead then read. Print is passé. Hooray for byte-sized entertainment that flashes, gyrates, careens and screams. Never be pensive, contemplative, reflective or introspective.
Lie back. Let the machine do the work. The screen flickers. Earbuds erupt in prerecorded rapture. How little is required, yet how enervating the experience. Instant ON/OFF. Minimal effort/maximum lethargy.
Don’t misunderstand. What you’re reading is not an anti-PC technology screed or another rant damning “new media.” It is not a revanche manifesto to regain arguably lost intellectual acreage. Surely computer networking and socially linked-in websites have delivered communication miracles in places where facts and information have been hijacked, assassinated, disappeared. Facebook and MySpace can be points of truth and light in states where repression parades as justice. Digitalized photos and you-are-there footage can swivel subjugation to liberation. Wherever despotic rule blindsides democratic reason, the saving grace of eyewitness electronic images can quite literally tip history.
At the risk of anthropomorphizing two covers and the pages between, a book takes on the tones and tinctures of experience. Consequently, as an "object," it conveys a great deal more than text.
Ah, but first let me confess my own prejudice against digital readers and preference for words on paper pages. I know, I know, not very “Green.” However, for me, there’s something powerful and talisman-esque about a book.
A book has presence, force. It has resonance and character; weight and a soul. A book lives, is out in the world. As time passes, a book becomes itself through handling and use. it gets its corners knocked off. Yet as it takes these hits it becomes something more then when it started. It becomes something more than the words it carries. It survives and it goes on, imparting its own being and spirit when cradled and held. Picking up a well-worn book gets me thinking about my own life. At the risk of anthropomorphizing two covers and the pages between, a book takes on the tones and tinctures of experience. Consequently, as an "object," it conveys a great deal more than text. Stirring design, handsome typography...these can be a book’s obvious visual attributes. Yet however well or ill it is made, a book acquires personality and feeling. I have little use for collecting books, owning them to stick on shelves like literary trophies. But I do respond to the acquired restive beauty of a well-traveled book; respond to the craft and the care and, well, the art, a book can embody. The scuffs and tears, the rips and stains, the yellow veining of aging pages; this is the radiance of a book’s being. Moreover, there’s the human imprint of all those readers who have previously passed through the book; evidence of their touch, their contact, their intimacy. If we lose printed books we would lose something of value and truth, something of no small worth.
This said, of course what matters most are the words. As your eyes ride left to right over these small symbols, meaning and significant assume color, form, contour, and relationships. Ideas coalesce into a kind of architecture you can inhabit; you can measure and know. And this is visceral as well as cerebral. As you read you inevitably give something of yourself, investing part of who you are directly and surely in the writer’s rendering. Letters into words, words into sentences, this then coalescing into issues and ideas. Surely the writer’s skill – at its highest manifestation, “art” – plays a certain part in determining the reading experience. Yet whether reading a newspaper column about Madonna or a rare edition of Middlemarch, you always play a central role. Reading is never passive. Whether reading a book or a Kindle, active participation is demanded. Reading requires putting something in to get something out. Where movies wash over us as shuttering light, and recorded music comes to us by speakers and components, words stand as themselves, which we must decode and translate. And the wonder here, reading’s eternal magic, is that from this “scanning,” this linear tracking, can materialize something direct and decisive. What we read fuses with our own lives, becomes one with them. Often it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say if a certain feeling or belief has been gained through what we did or by what we read. And, too, a memorable book read at age 20 is not the same at 60. The same words now resonate with altered meaning. Accomplished writing is dynamic, mutable, kinetic.
Certainly there’s something paradoxical, even comical, that given the accelerating sophistication of other ways of learning and being entertained -- TV, radio, the movies, or Internet – reading remains uniquely able to change and transform us. It affords access to a part of us other “technologies” cannot reach. In reading we engage in a conversation not just with the writer but with ourselves. So many cultures have their lasting texts, their vital literary heritage. Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Rumi, Balzac, Joyce, Zhen, Melville, Tagore; their words leap beyond the calendar, defy anachronism. We read Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, Toni Morrison, Leonardo Sciascia, and Sarah Orne Jewett to find out about others but in doing so find out about ourselves.
We read because we want to enlarge our circle, more firmly grasp and understand things, tangible and abstract. Sometimes we read to impress others, intellectual one-upmanship. We read to be amused, charmed, terrorized, and challenged. We read to be shocked, soothed, scandalized, and eroticized. We read to be amazed, motivated, captivated, and flabbergasted; delighted, excited, outraged, and all combinations plus dictionaries more. Whether reading in a clanging subway car or in the deep hush of a downtown library we occupy a space away from demands and duties. The writer’s thoughts seem to come from us, not from what we are reading. Conversely, though we are communing with ourselves, at that moment we do not know it, nor need to. We read and words become presidents, lovers, assassins, mothers, ghosts, and friends.
Several years ago I helped a man in his 30s learn to read. He told me how he would go to a restaurant with his wife and friends and pretend he was looking over the menu. When it came time to order he would tell the waitress he wanted the same as his wife. When this man’s young son would ask him to read a bedtime story he would pick up a book and pretend to read, making the story up as he randomly flipped pages. Driving on freeways this man would frequently get lost, unable to read road signs or understand street names. By nature he was outgoing, optimistic; eager to better himself and his family. But not knowing how to read was a hungry void into which his life seemed in danger of disappearing. Yet after a while this man was able to read; first a newspaper then a book. A few years after I had stopped tutoring, I ran into him at an airport. He told me what it meant to now be able to read menus and maps, what it meant to now read a book to his second child, his daughter, when she went to bed. The void had vanished.
A passionate readership incites a serious writer to get beyond the tried-and-tired, to arrive at something sure and incisive, work that’s as demanding and revealing and fresh as on the day when first delivered.
A friend of mine, a shoemaker, is rereading Plato’s Republic. He is doing this because his daughter brought it home from school and he noticed it on her bookshelf. “When I read something I feel I am in the audience but also on a stage,” he recently told me. “For instance, when Socrates is talking to someone, I am looking at him from a distance but also feel I am close by, watching as he makes his points.” My friend described reading in terms of depth; in terms of perspective and dimension. Whereas television or movies for him principally project flatness and artificiality, reading is a fully realized activity in which all senses are alive. “I am there, involved, participating in what’s occurring.”
It’s natural to expect writing about reading to house a quote or two on the subject. But rather than raid Bartlett's, suffice it to say, good writing depends on good readers. A passionate readership incites a serious writer to get beyond the tried-and-tired, to arrive at something sure and incisive, work that’s as demanding and revealing and fresh as on the day when first delivered. Good readers are integral to this, indispensable, really, to writers working to break new ground, integral to artistic aspiration and literary striving. Informed readers challenge great writers to go farther then they have before, to write beyond their limitations and what they already know, and so perhaps make something that is true and right that will last for a while.
We read for many reasons, for many outcomes. We read for instruction, for distraction. We read to get lost and to be found, sometimes for both. Reading renews and exhausts. When we read, time drops away; hours annihilated, the clock stopped. And as we go through words, we invest something of ourselves, this a tacit pact between reader and writer. Indeed, this is a requirement, an essential. Sometimes we give more of ourselves than other times. But ideally we are in partnership with the author; fleshing out details, filling in spaces, completing motivations and relationships the writer is evoking uniquely for each of us.
So why are you reading this?
The explanation spans the prosaic to the poetic, with no single answer, no slam-dunk comeback. And yet perhaps the plain fact you are reading provides one of the more salient clues. While traveling through words we speculate and conjecture. And this carries beyond books, magazines, and quarterly journals. Clearly readers, as is true of what they read, are not one type. And, so, yes, there are enthusiastic readers keen on learning how to blow up buildings or filch bank accounts from ailing widows. Yet I do think, in the end, this group proves a greater reading rule. Is there not generally more than a soupcon of meliroism in reading’s very act? As readers, do we not implicitly look to complete ourselves, to make strong the weak points, to hear from others otherwise missed? Isn’t reading overwhelmingly affirmative, optimistic? In that classic novel, that newly arrived newsweekly; in that crime anthology, that exhaustive work of nonfiction, we believe enlightenment waits. Wherever a child takes to text, is there not wonder and anticipation; the expectation that change flutters in the wings, just beyond the curvature of this rising horizon of words?
Miles Beller, a journalist/novelist, is a board member of The Wonder of Reading and contributing editor of the Carl Jung Institute’s Psychological Perspective