Archive for September, 2008


Reading Descartes, or, Reading as Tourism

I have been reading anthologized excerpts from Descartes’ Meditations (chapters I and II) and find myself wondering in what sense I can now claim to have read Descartes. Surely, reading passages from the original text comes closer to “having read Descartes” than reading, for example, the SparkNotes summary of the entire work. The word count is about the same, yet reading the passages creates experiences that resemble those experiences one should hope to encounter when reading Descartes’ ouevre in toto. In that sense, reading excerpts is more justly referred to as “having read Descartes” than knowing a lot about the ideas Descartes proposed. In confining my reading to certain passages, I will, for example, learn little about the meaning of clear and distinct ideas; I won’t encounter Descartes’ proof of God, nor learn his distinction of primary and secondary qualities or mind and body. If I stick to the SparkNotes summary, on the other hand, I won’t know what it means to Descartes to finally be able to settle down and meditate:

So today I expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at least I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions. (23)

It is unlikely I shall share a laugh with Descartes about the behaviour of madmen:

Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. (23)

I won’t quite grasp the sense of urgency or despair that haunts Descartes when he ponders the idea of a malicious demon deceiving him. I won’t experience relief when Descartes, a couple of sentences later, mentions in passing that there’s no need to worry, it’s all just epistomology:

In the meantime, I know that no danger or error will result from my plan, and that I cannot possibly go too far in my distrustful attitude. This is because the task now in hand does not involve action but merely the acquisition of knowledge. (25)

Of course, if I read the passages well, I shall also encounter the finer shades and aspects of Descartes’ arguments, something a summary cannot offer. But all of these experience-nuggets, valuable or enjoyable as they might be in comparison to a dry summary, are soon forgotten. The memory of the reading experience will fade and I will be left with little besides this:

Deceived as he may be about other things, he [Descartes] cannot help but conclude that he exists. Since his existence follows from the fact that he is thinking, he concludes that he knows at least that he is a thing that thinks. (SparkNotes)

This is what the Meditations are about, after all. This is their meaning. This is the idea that made Descartes the father of modern philosophy.

Nevertheless, something else remains from reading an original, even from reading only chunks, something I think and hope might be underestimated: the simple experience of actually having laid eyes upon the thing. Regardless of how little we remember or take from a book, at least we possess the certain knowledge that we did experience it. We get a sense of intimacy otherwise missing — we have touched the book, and we can sincerely say, “yes, I’ve been there”. In the best scenario, this amounts to joining Descartes in his meditation; at the worst, it’s a tourist trip, ticking off a great classic like a monument on a sight-seeing tour. The “tourist-reader” who pays a book a fleeting visit because he’s heard it’s a must-read may not count as a proper reader, but not every traveller can be a Rick Steves, either. And on that note, I shall leave you with a (slightly adapted) quote-mix from Mr Steves that may benefit tourist-readers on future trips:

I would like readers to read in a way that broadens their perspective. […] We can read in a way that exacerbates the problems between us and the rest of the world, or in a way that connects us with the rest of the world. I do not want to encourage and enable readers to read in a way that makes the problem worse, and a lot of people do read in a way that makes the problem worse. My readers, I think — I’d like to think — read in a way that connects them with the rest of the world and when they come home they are changed readers. […] Until next time, keep on reading! Cheerio.


Imagination and the Reading Memory

Each time I talk to friends about books, watch critics discuss books on television, or read a book review in a newspaper or on a blog post , I am struck — baffled, often — by how much readers seem to remember from their readings. The critic, of course, is paid to remember. Yet even compared to lay readers my recollection of books is shoddy and fragmented at best. Often when trying to remember passages or details from a book, I am dumbstruck, and a frustrated and slightly disgruntled grimace creeps on my face, not unlike the expression of Dante Rossetti’s Mmenosyne:

Thus the question How and what do readers remember? fascinates me both in its own right and as a means towards self-improvement. In my estimation, and this might be stating the obvious, the best aid to memory is anything in a book that touches you, emotionally or intellectually, on a personal level. Whether a character feels and thinks the way you do, whether an incident reminds you of a significant episode of your life, or whether you share an opinion with the author (or rail against the author’s opinion, for that matter) — solipsism is a marvellous hook for memory, because it anchors details in a strong emotion  or a strong opinion of your own.

But we also seek out books for new rather than familiar experiences. How do we remember those? At least as far as fiction is concerned, the answer is: imagination. And arguably the most easily imagined aspect of a book is plot. It needs less effort on the part of the reader’s imagination than, say, descriptions or characters, because plot is more structured and more readily summarized than the latter. We can structure plot according to cause and effect or chronology, and we can summarize it by incidents and episodes. We can of course summarize descriptions and characters as well, but we lose much more in a character summary than a plot summary, and there’s little in the way of structure available in descriptions of characters and scenes. If nothing else, plot is always linear, meaning dynamic, and never static. Admittedly, I am talking out of my ass here. Then again, how come common readers (except the French, but they don’t count) tend to prefer plot-ladden books to plot-less ones? Isn’t that due to the fact that plot sticks more easily? (This, of course, is not to say that plot is more important or more valuable than characters or descriptions, despite Aristotle’s assertion to the contrary; plot, he said, “is the basic principle, the heart and soul, as it were, of tragedy”. One can certainly question such a stance, as Nigel Beale does at his Nota Bene Books.)

However, it is one thing to remember the basic plot of a book and another to recall the various incidents that contribute to it. Here, as with characters and descriptions, a vivid imagination is key. Everybody knows that memory works best through association. It is much easier to recall things when we can connect them to memories which are already firmly planted in our mind. Since Simonides and his memory palace, memory coaches have taught audiences various such association-tricks. Such feats, however, while well-suited for remembering your shopping list, are not all that helpful when it comes to remembering a novel or essay. But our imagination does something very similar when it creates association-clusters that connect the verbal representations of events, characters and descriptions with vivid images, be they auditory, visual, or physical (“scrotum-tightening sea”, anyone?).

I still marvel at the apparent ability of some readers to create such vivid images of a book’s universe when I think of the few fleeting impressions I myself retain from my reading. Meanwhile, I wonder how much an active imagination is the result of active reading. Does an active imagination encourage the reader to pay closer attention to the text, or does active reading stir your imagination? Are the two separate entities, or are they linked? Is one a prerequisite to the other? And while we’re at it, what about the ontology of it all: what’s the relationship between the memory of what is written and the memory of what is imagined? If a reader reads sloppily and his imagination of a book’s character or event or description is, consequently, equally sloppy, is that memory justly called a memory of the book or is it just a memory of the reading experience?

Finally, one could ask normatively: What should we remember from our readings?  After all, even those readers who immediately after the reading recall a lot of details tend to forget more as time goes by. What should readers retain from their readings: Words? Ideas? Images? Of course, the final decision is the reader’s to make. But the critic could play a part in it, too. His or her job is to compile a detailed memory — plot, characters, descriptions, arguments — and construe from it a coherent whole — the interpretation — that serves as a point of reference for remembering a book in the future. This mnemonic definition of criticism might be too reductionist for some, too traditional for others (the critic as the arbiter of what’s best to be remembered in the world). I believe it merits thought, nonetheless; after all, what worth has reading without memory?


Recommended Reading and the Western Canon

It’s been a while since I’ve walked the hallowed halls of the alma mater and feasted upon the great works of literature. And although I’m jobless now and far from unfolding the shining secrets of Midas, Morgan and Maecanas, I, too, have the high intention of reading many books and, in the words of Nick Carraway, “become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded’ man.”

On the internet, groups and message forums devoted to the classics abound, and since there’s no better way than to stimulate active reading than discussing your experiences with fellow readers, I shall sooner or later sign up for a classics reading group. Thus, if you happen to know such a group that you would recommend, please let me know.

But what to read? The good old Western Canon seems a good place to start. Fortuitously, my edition of Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book features a recommended reading list in the appendix offering just that: the most important works of the Western canon, covering literature, science, philosophy and politics. And for more ambitious readers, there’s Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. (His recommended reading list is available here.)

But let’s be modest, shall we. My aim is not to read the entire Western canon, a feat that seems not precocious so much as illusory.  What I’m interested in at this stage is reading some of the classics well — get a good grip of what they are about and a better sense for what they have achieved. It might be a good idea to complement the reading of a classic with reading lesser known works that treat the same topics. When reading the great books, lazy readers such as myself are tempted by SparkNotes too easily, and the juxtaposition between a great work and a “lesser” work may make the reading much more active and penetrating.

The whole canon-reading project also got me thinking about whether the way we happen upon a book affects our reading. Does our reading experience differ depending on whether we read by inclination, by recommendation, or by prescription? I suspect that if a book is read well the circumstances of how text and reader encountered each other initially matter little, although even the most seasoned of readers are, no doubt, to some degree shaped by how they run into a book. So which kind of reading is to be preferred?  Samuel Johnson has this to say:

If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination.

There’s certainly something to be said for reading by inclination. The thrill and intimacy of discovering a book on your own, for example. Or the satisfaction of reading a book with no strings attached. Too often, recommendations carry a sense of obligation or create heightened expectations that readers find difficult to shake off and that all too easily spoil the reading experience. It is akin to watching an over-hyped movie or going to a play recommended by your teacher. Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Compulsory Reading” illustrates the killjoy-potential of recommended reading magnificently.

Much of it depends on the book in question too, I suppose, as well as on your reading personality. I, for one, often prefer recommended reading. I think I lack the necessary self-discipline to read well, and I believe the company of fellow readers and the ‘pressure’ of a recommendation can help me delve deeper into a book, at least in the primary phase of the reading experience. On, then, to the Western canon! Once again: should you have a recommendation for a reading group that tackles the classics, drop me a comment.


On Being Well-Read

Truth be told, I’m not well-read. Though I have hoarded many books, and even read most of them, my reading has often been cursory and superficial. And that, as Mortimer J. Adler points out, has little to do with what “well-read” means:

Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. As Thomas Hobbes said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” (How to Read a Book, 166)

…which reminded me how Albrecht Dürer earned his spurs portraying the book fool aboard Sebastian Brandt’s Narrenschyff, who is “besy bokes assemblynge / […] But what they mene do I nat vnderstonde”:

I am the firste fole of all the hole nauy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure haue I
Of bokes to haue grete plenty and aparayle
I take no wysdome by them […] (The Ship of Fools)

“I pity the fool!” — I hear you, Mr. T, I hear you.


Reading Experiences

A recent post at OnFiction presents a study claiming that certain readers and writers experience characters in works of fiction as though these characters had a mind of their own. Of the 50 writers interviewed, “[a]ll but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency.” Dan Green’s response at The Reading Experience criticizes the assumption (implicit in the OnFiction piece) that we can somehow isolate the characters from the work of art and invest them with meaning outside the realm of fiction. What sparked my interest was not so much the arguments about the nature of characters, criticism or works of art, but the posters’ descriptions of their respective reading experiences.

The OnFiction piece, for example, claims that “readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to.” The experience of literary characters is even linked to the experience of imaginary companions observed in children; characters are imagined as real people with real motives that defy the author’s or reader’s control and can assume a life beyond the story. Dan, on the other hand, experiences characters only to the extent to which they are in the story; he imagines characters based on the information provided by the author (and the occasional “reading between the lines”) and thinks about them primarily with respect to how they contribute to “the whole work of fiction”. Concerning my own experience, I do find myself contemplating characters outside the work of fiction and often amuse myself by imagining how they would react in situations that have little to do with the story’s original context.

The question, of course, is whether such an experience has anything to do with the reading experience. Does it truly constitute a reading experience when I ponder whether Hamlet’s taste buds would approve of my garlic rosemary pasta? I actually think it does. Dan doesn’t. As far as I understand it, he regards a contemplation of a character removed from the contemplation of the story as a departure from the reading experience. And understandably so: Dan’s understanding of the reading experience, I think, is closely tied to his understanding of the work of art, in particular the assumption that the work of art possesses a formal unity that in the reader’s mind translates into an experiential unity. I do not question the practicality of such a philosophy of art; it has certainly produced some great and insightful literary criticism.

However, I doubt it paints an accurate picture of the reading experience of most readers. Take the purported unity of the work of art, for example. Readers certainly do achieve some kind of unity in their experience of an art work (at the most basic level, they realize that a work of fiction starts at the first page and ends at the last), but I wonder how much of that experience corresponds to the unity that was crafted into the work by the author, or the experience he or she envisaged for the reader. Most readers do not grasp and retain much of that unity to begin with, and even among ideal readers, whose grasp and recollection of a work’s form and content is complete, reading experiences are likely to vary because the unity they have arrived at differs according to their emphasis and arrangement of the work’s parts (not to mention their differences in taste, ideology, personality, etc.).

Moreover, we as readers do not want to make the constraints of the work of art the constraints of our own reading experience. We certainly welcome the way these constraints stimulate and shape our experience of a work, but we also want to expand on that experience and confront it according to our own needs and preferences. Thus the reading experiences comes alive, instead of remaining an exercise in figuring out what experience the author had in mind when he or she put pen to paper. Therefore, I consider the reader’s contribution to the work of art — including his or her departure from the author’s plan — a meaningful part of the reading experience.

While I do think that there are intersubjective reading experiences that reflect a work’s nature better than others, I also believe that if we take a reader-response approach seriously, we must acknowledge a tendency among readers’ to appropriate works of art according to their own designs and limits, consciously and unconsciously, and I find exploring such appropriations or even promoting your own appropriation (some, I take it, would prefer to call them “instrumentalisations”) a legitimate avenue for literary criticism.