Monday, 9 March 2015

Let’s not love reading more than it deserves

As the reader approaches a text from a perspective that's independent from that of the author, it wouldn't take much to label him/her as an individual who is simply running their own interests to the detriment of the author. Although this statement is too harsh and certainly reductive, it is not overly-exaggerated either. By virtue of their own nature, the reader plays this comedy of errors where misreading is a crucial trick, the core of the very feat of text production.

Source: BBC
But the reader is not only a schemer. He doesn't only exist to ruin the author's dinner party with their ill manners and irreverent antics. The reader is also a skimmer.

Reading on the surface

Readers don't read whole texts; they don't peruse entire literatures, don't ingest shelves upon shelves of books. Look at what’s achieved after a lifetime of reading, multiply it by ten, and you’re still only beginning to see the extent of one’s volume insofar as this illustrious business of reading is concerned.
If anything, a reader's effort is not quantifiable in numbers of pages read a day, a week, a month, a lifetime. The worth of this effort is measured in the extent (some would say "depth," but I find the word somewhat eroded) of one's understanding. Because there's no point in reading if the text remains unread. What’s more, not-understanding is also part of the equation; and when comprehension yields negative results, quantity turns sour.
So let’s not think in terms of numbers.
Let’s not turn this activity into an event of mythical proportions that no reader should be associated with. As an activity of the intellect, reading depends on the brain and on the mind's capacity to retain information. That, in itself, is enough to put us on a track of relativization insofar as the cultural myth of the encyclopedic mind is concerned. While it may be reassuring to think that humankind has this ability injected into the members of its species to keep intact all the information ever encountered, the possibility of that to take place is null. Of course, there are individuals whose minds are great containers, who, like heroes of Olympus, can boast thousands of pages given to memory, millions of words recited without the faintest hiccup. But that doesn't prove a iota about the species. The great majority of us are still within the natural limits of the average mind, struggling with phone numbers, let alone difficult passages from Shakespeare or the German Idealists.
In fact, the very idea of an encyclopedia is proof of the fact that storage doesn't take place inside a reader's mind but outside it. It’s in the book that everything can be found; it’s for the sake of the book’s capacity to preserve texts that the writing of it was done in the first place. Insofar as there is a dictionary, one will never have to fall prey to any passion for definitions. Insofar as there is a cookbook, nobody should learn by rote the list of ingredients and cooking methods. Learning by rote is only a personal feat, and it should stay that way, whereas cooking a fine meal depends on how you can transform the recipe (always theoretical text, always a reference point) into a palpable dish.

Reading for the network

The evidence that someone's an effective and efficient reader is not in how much they can reproduce (venturing to premise that one can only reproduce something one has read). What is truly important here is the ability to create connections between the bits read at various points in time. A truly great readerly mind is a systemic mind; a mind given to the creation and maintenance of networks of texts.
When one reads, one enjoys the rediscovery of precedents. But those precedents are not present as monoliths. On the contrary, it is bits and pieces that one retains from something one has carefully perused. This means that reading is the successive addition of texts to texts. Reading depends on reading. To be able to read, one must have already read. Not the same text, but some (never all) texts that make up the present text's environment: its textuality. Hence the familiar conclusion that every text is intertext; that no text is ever isolated, simply because its reader is not isolated either.
So the pleasure of the reader is, indeed, acquired from being able to connect. Being able to say "I've seen this before" gives more satisfaction than the discovery of something entirely new. Not to mention the fact that complete newness is not enjoyable; it works against our instincts of conservation and against the basic need for comfort we acquire from treading pathways trodden by others – or even by ourselves, in earlier instantiations of our lives as readers.
This is when our capacity to memorize is most gratified: when, out of the nebulous hodge-podge of accumulated experience, where nothing stands out unless it is intentionally brought into the foreground, we pick out this particular episode, this particular fraction of a text, which we had thought forever lost, never preserved.
The anxiety of reading is to be found when, at the end of a novel, for instance, sometimes even the names of the protagonists are not immediately retrievable. This is also the moment when the reader experiences doubt of their own intellectual capacity. But this is a wrongly perceived problem, an anxiety with no justification, because nobody reads a text with the express intention of turning it into the cells of their own blood.
Source: Burak Arikam
Not even the most fundamentalist readers of a text can imagine a world where no other text is possible. The whole of life would stand to prove them wrong. The fact that fundamentalists insist on the importance of a single text ("Sola Scriptura," a dictum so utopian it must hurt) proves, to my mind, a deeply seated anxiety in relation to the alternative texts that compete for one's attention along with the text considered fundamental. Indeed, the struggle to read one text alone is a struggle to eliminate all other texts from the epicenter of one's experience; and that is a very unnatural striving, one with little chances of success.
It is more natural and perhaps more realistic to think of writing as a process of interactivity. The way present texts interact with earlier texts when I keep my mind and eye on a particular page is the only valid proof there is that I am a reader, one who never allows the present text to obliterate the texts that are not immediately present but which have effectively seeped into my intellectual capacity to read – to recognize a text when I see one.