Archive for the 'literature' Category


Flaubert and his Parrot On Reading

Traditionally, reader response theory focuses on abstract or generic readers and tends to brush over some of the more human elements of reading. This includes the reader’s relationship to the author, and so it is quite refreshing to read an account of just such a relationship: Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot recounts the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an avid reader and amateur-scholar of Gustave Flaubert, who is visiting the writer’s home in France to search for clues about the significance of a parrot Flaubert once used to write one of his stories.

Barnes’s Parrot has  a lot to say on authors and readers, and on critics, too. Neither Flaubert nor Braithwaite make bones about what they think of the latter’s breed. In a chapter on Emma Bovary’s eyes, for example, the amateur-reader Braithwaite takes a professional Flaubert critic to task for chiding the Frenchman for sloppiness, and offers a poignant simile of the reader-author relationship for the professional reader, on the one hand, and the common readers on the other:

I must confess that in all the time I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can’t for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain lal the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell yo one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. … Whereas the common but passionate reader  is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers,  come back and be entranced again. (75-76)

Very apt, methinks, although we should not forget that common readers can get quite obsessed and obsessive about their choice authors as well.

Gustave Flaubert

The Parrot also contains snippets from Flaubert’s letters and Madame Bovary that often broach the topic of reading, and make me want to read Flaubert, albeit not so much for the master’s portrayal of the human condition as for what doctor Braithwaite dubs Flaubert’s “confident scraps of wisdom, hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry”. To wit:

Les livres ne se font pas comme les enfants, mais comme les pyramides, avec un dessein prémédité, et en apportant des grands blocs l’un par-dessus l’autre, à force de reins, de temps et de sueur, et ça ne sert à rien ! Et ça reste dans le désert ! Mais en le dominant prodigieusement. Les chacals pissent en bas et les bourgeois montent dessus, etc., continue la comparaison. (Gustave Flaubert, cited in Albert Thibaudet’s Gustave Flaubert, 136)

Or in translation from the Parrot:

Books aren’t made the way babies are: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.



William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.


Remember, Remember

Continuing my series of gloomy and dystopian posts, today’s entry features Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit was an arresting read for me, not only because of the book theme, or Bradbury’s engaging prose, or the touching characterization of the protagonist, the “fireman” (i.e. book burner) Guy Montag, but also because I was expecting something quite different from a novel that up to now I had categorised as the third installment of the classic dystopian trilogy beginning with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Having recently watched a BBC adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, crammed with soma-induced pyjama wearing alphas to gammas, assembly lines for breeding, brainwashing jingles, hypno-cinemas, and all the other various gadgets, I was expecting Bradbury to do exactly the same, namely to spend a good deal of time elaborating on his dystopian society and create a world full of symbol-laden contraptions and quirky  social routines burdened with moral dilemmas. Fahrenheit does that, too, but merely in passing, and uses it not as an end in itself, but as a backdrop for portraying the growing conflict facing the book’s main character, Guy Montag.

The central premise of Fahrenheit, as most of you will know, is that a future society has institutionalized the burning of books (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). Books have become forbidden objects, and although some renegade readers still hide them in their attics, living in constant fear of the fire department showing up at their doorstep, most citizens regard printed matter with fear, suspicion or unsavory ridicule.  A handful of readers have gone into hiding in the forests at the outskirts of the city, and have taken it upon themselves to save the legacy of the great books by memorizing them before they are being obliterated — a “living memory” in every sense of the word:

We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. […] And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, and the people will be called in, one by one, to recall what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damned thing over again.

Bradbury’s decision to centre his dystopia around books must have come naturally to him. Born into a publisher family, he was also a bibliophile. I remember watching an Bradbury interview where he describes his first encounter with books, instantly becoming obsessed with their smell, and when you read Fahrenheit you will soon realise that his writing is very olfactory indeed. Of course it is not books as things that matter to the story, but their capacity to contain thoughts and ideas: books are the memory of humankind, and Bradbury captures the sense of memory loss of a bookless society poignantly in a childhood episode of the novel’s protagonist. While Montag is sitting in the subway, a stolen Bible clasped to his body, trying desperately to remember a line from the sermon of the mount, failing as the train speakers shout their ads at the passengers, he remembers the following scene:

Once as a child he had sat upon a yellow dune by the sea in the middle of the blue and hot summer day, trying to fill a sieve with sand, because some cruel cousin had said, “Fill this sieve and you’ll get a dime!” And the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering. His hands were tired, the sand was boiling, the sieve was empty. Seated there in the midst of July, without a sound, he felt the tears move down his cheeks.

Bradbury’s dystopian world is filled with noise — soap operas, the roaring fighter jet, colour walls, dentistry commercials; and the noise makes it impossible for Montag to hang on even to a single line from what he is reading. In Bradbury’s future, the inability to hold on to what you have read, and the thoughts and ideas you encounter  and perchance the new ideas you create, has eradicated people’s sense of being individuals, and at the same time made it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the history of human thought, or even with their present surroundings and other human beings.

Fahrenheit was written in 1953.  Ten years after publication, Bradbury described a scene he had just witnessed on the street, of a woman walking next to her husband:

The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera-cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down kerbs by a husband who might just as well have not been there. This was not fiction.

I can only surmise what Bradbury has been thinking and feeling for the last couple of decades, but I imagine it must be a rather daunting and unsettling experience as a dystopian writer to witness your vision of the future manifesting itself in the present and realising you might have been all too right in your predictions. We might still keep a lot books around (more than ever, in fact) and most of us, hopefully, consider the burning of books a sacrilege; but as far as the memory of books is concerned, I for one am haunted by the fear of losing the ability to hold on to what I have read, and on a larger social scale this might be as dangerous as losing the books themselves.


Marcel Proust, “Sur la lecture”

Passionate readers fascinate me to no end, and I was lucky enough to meet such a reader recently when by chance I stumbled upon a tiny volume with the title “On Reading” by a Frenchman named Marcel Proust.

I found out later that Monsieur Proust wrote “Sur la lecture” (1905) as a preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. The first part is devoted to Proust’s childhood days, his room, a stroll in the park, and the pleasure and intimacy of reading. Young Marcel read voraciously, and old Marcel painfully remembers the interruptions he had to endure as a kid while reading his beloved novels, be that a playmate who was looking for him, a buzzing bee or the glistening sunrays, or his father’s “fatal call” for breakfast — “la parole fatale: ‘Allons, ferme ton livre, on va déjeuner.” Many readers, Proust fans especially I’d imagine, will cherish these passages, and the beauty and profound thought of descriptions such as this:

… la pendule et le feu qui parlent sans demander qu’on leur réponde et dont les doux propos vides de sense ne viennent pas, comme les paroles des hommes, en substituter un différent à celui des mots que vous lisez. (10)

But theory-minded me was more interested in the second part, in which Proust talks about Ruskin and reading in general. Unfortunately, my French wasn’t quite up to the task of deciphering the nuances of Proust’s thoughts on the matter, but there was one bit that caught my attention nevertheless. Commenting on the role of reading in our spiritual life, Proust writes that to the reader the book, once read, ought not to be a “conclusion”, but an “incitation”:

Nous sentons très bien que notre sagesse commence où celle de l’auteur finit, et nous voudrions qu’il nous donnât des réponses, quand tout ce qu’il peut faire est de nous donner des désirs. Et ces désirs, il ne peut les éveiller en nous qu’en nous faisant contempler la beauté suprême à laquelle le dernier effort de son art lui a permis d’atteindre. Mais par une loi singulière et d’ailleurs prodiventielle de l’optique des esprits (loi qui signifie peut-être que nous ne pouvons recevoir la vérité de personne, et que nous devons la créer nous-même), ce qui est le terme de leur sagesse ne nous apparaît que comme le commencement de la nôtre, de sorte que c’est au moment où ils nous ont dit tout ce qu’ils pouvaient nous dire qu’ils font naître en nous le sentiment qu’ils ne nous ont encore rien dit. (32)

In other words, books cannot give us wisdom, they cannot give us answers, but they can inspire us and waken our desire to become wise, to find answers for ourselves. “Reading is the beginning of our spiritual life; it introduces us to it: it does not constitute it” —  “La lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire: elle ne la constitute pas.” (34)

Proust does not elaborate on the notion of the “spiritual life”, but we gain an inkling of what he means from the role he attributes to art and the artist:

Le suprême effort de l’écrivain comme de l’artiste n’aboutit qu’à soulever partiellement pour nous le voile de laideur et d’insignifiance qui nous laisse incurieux devant l’univers. (34)

Reading as a means to throw off a “veil of disgust and insignificance that leaves us incurious about the universe”? Seen like this, Proust’s fond memory of childhood days makes perfect sense. The child, after all, is a symbol of uninhibited curiosity, always on a quest for beauty and poetry for their own sake, even though, on second glance, a child’s curiosity is superficial, a mere game where answers matter little.

Nonetheless, it is true that our youthful curiosity and our enthusiasm for questions tends to fade. Sometimes, we no longer have time to get at the bottom of things, or we get complacent. We might even stop asking questions altogether because we think we have all the answers, or because every time we dare ask a profound question, we are confronted with the hard truth that good answers aren’t easy to come by, and that to satisfy true curiosity takes hard work and endurance. Or perhaps we despair when we come to know that we don’t know.

For despite Proust’s suggestion to the contrary, a book can only do so much to rouse your interest and incite your curiosity. In the end, it is you, the reader, who has to ask the questions, probe the book’s answers, and let your mind be animated once the book returns to the bookshelf. Active reading must be done by the reader; the book cannot do it for you. And thus there lurks the danger that lazy readers will try to seek both answers and their questions from books, effectively reducing reading to consumption — a danger Proust was well aware of:

Tant que la lecture est pour nous l’initriatrice dont les clefs magiques nous ouvrent au fond de nous-mêmes la porte des demeures où nous n’aurions pas su pénétrer, son rôle dans notre vie est salutaire. Il devient dangereux au contraire quand, au lieu de nous éveiller à la vie personelle de l’esprit, la lecture tend à se substituter à elle, quand la vérité ne nous apparaît plus comme un idéal que nous ne pouvons réaliser que par le progrès intime de notre pensée et par l’effort de notre coeur, mais comme une chose matérielle, déposée entre les feuillets des livres comme un miel tout préparé par les autres et que nous n’avons qu’à prendre la peine d’atteindre sur les rayons des bibliothèques et de déguster ensuite passivement dans un parfait repos de corps et d’esprit. (37-38)

But what’s the cure for readers longing merely to escape, to divert themselves, or for readers without questions? How to help the bookfool, who lusts after books and pages, who might seek beauty and wisdom and poetry, but is distracted by the gentle caress of the binding? Is he condemned to read “How to read”-books forever? Or is there hope, in books and love, that for each fool there’s the one out there who can truly get at him, who transcends appearance and penetrates his inner-most self, a book that is able to lift the fool’s cap, the veil of material reading to open the gate to “la lecture spirituelle”? As Cicero said: Dum spiro, spero.

Proust, Marcel. Sur la lecture. Arles: Actes Sud, 1988.


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.


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.


Definitions of the Common Reader

Some scattered thoughts on the notion of the common reader. We can approach the definition of “the reader” — common or otherwise — from various angles, basing it upon, for example, what kind of person the reader is, or what his or her reading are, or what he or she reads. Richard Altick (see previous post) employs the first approach. He explains his use of the term as follows:

The reading public studied in this book is the one composed of what the Victorians were fond of calling “the million.” It is not the relatively small, intellectually and socially superior audience for which most of the great nineteenth-century authors–the readers of the quarterly reviews, the people whom writers like Macaulay, the Brontës, Meredith, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill had in mind. Here we are concerned primarily with the experience of that overwhelmingly more numerous portion of the English people who became day-by-day readers for the first time in this period, as literacy spread and printed matter became cheaper. The “common reader” studied in these pages may be a member of the working class, or he may belong to the ever expanding bourgeoisie. In preceding centuries […] some hand-workers and some members of the lower-middle class had been readers; but not until the nineteenth century did the appetite for print permeate both classes to the extent that it became a major social phenomenon. (Altick, 6-7)

Altick defines the common reader quantitatively (common=numerous) and qualitatively (common=lower class). The common reader is therefore defined by his or her social stratum. Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader” takes the second route. She defines the common reader with regards to his or her reading habits:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of a whole […] He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out […] (Woolf, 2-3)

Woolf’s definition says little about the social status of the reader or his character, but it tells us quite a bit about the way he reads. I am not sure what to make of the “instinct to create for himself …” passage, although I believe what Woolf is getting as is the seeming lack of purpose or direction in the reading of the common reader, as contrasted by the critic, who reads for evaluation and edification, and the scholar, who reads for knowledge.

We could also tackle the definition of the “common reader” based on features of the text that’s being read. The search for a definition and elucidation of the reader based on texts are perhaps the most complex but also, at least from the point of view of literary criticism and theory, the most rewarding of the three approaches, and I shall devote a separate post to that at some stage.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Common Reader”. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953.


The English Common Reader from 1500 to 1800

I have started reading The English Common Reader by the late Richard D. Altick, a landmark study in its field. A chapter-by-chapter summary is available here. Altick outlined his project thus:

This volume is an attempt to study, from the historian’s viewpoint, the place of reading in an industrial and increasingly democratic society. It is the story of how, through numberless tribulations, and against what sometimes appeared to be hopeless odds, there took root and eventually flourished in nineteenth-century England a revolutionary social concept: that of the democracy of print. (1)

In my next post, I hope to comment briefly on  the ideology underlying the notion of the “common reader”, but for now I would simply like to recapitulate Altick’s account of English common readers from Tudor England to the beginning of the 19th century.

To make a long story short: except for a brief decline following the Commonwealth (1649-1660), the English reading public, though always a minority, steadily increased, but its rise was by no means as easy and smooth as one would think.

The obstacles were both material and ideological. Chief among the material difficulties were the lack of printing presses and the prices for books. The spread of printing presses and published material were hold in check by the Star Chamber, who in 1586 prohibited the founding of new presses and limited new editions to 1,500 copies. Despite the Chamber’s abolition in 1641, which ended the regulation of the number of presses, book prices remained high. During the 16th and 17th century, the price of a book amounted to a decent monthly salary. By the end of the 18th century, little had changed:

Books […] except for pirated works and, especially after 1774, reprints of standard authors, could seldom be purchased except by the relatively well-to-do. If a man in the lower bracket of white-neckcloth class–an usher at a school, for instance, or a merchant’s clerk–had a taste for owning books, he would have had to choose between buying a newly published quarto volume and a good pair of breeches (each cost from 10s. to 12s.), or between a volume of essays and a month’s supply of tea and sugar for his family of six (2s.6d.). (Altick, 52-53)

This excluded books that were considered useful (Bibles, religious books, grammar books, and so on), which could be published in greater number and sold much cheaper. The “reprints of standard authors” refers to, amongst others, John Bell‘s 109-volume editions of Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill, begun in 1776, at the bargain price of 1s. 6d. per volume. Similar endeavours were launched by John Harrison and John Cooke. Leigh Hunt wrote about Cooke’s editions: “When the master tormented me, when I used to hate and loathe the sight of Homer, and Demosthenes, and Cicero, I would comfort myself with thinking of the sixpence in my pocket, with which I should go out to Paternoster-row, when the school was over, and buy another number of an English poet.” (qtd. in Altick, 54-55).

Surprisingly, lack of education was far less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The 15th and 16th centuries saw a significant number of new schools as the teaching of reading and writing was steadily removed from the monopoly of the Church and laid in the hands of laymen. Spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541) were used to endow grammar schools, allowing men from all strata of society to achieve literacy (famous examples of lower-class readers of the time are Marlowe, son to a cobbler, Donne, son to an ironmonger, and Herrick, son to a goldsmith). Younger children earned an elementary knowledge of reading and writing from the petty schools (probably from French “petit”). These schools fostered the use of the written vernacular and contributed to the demise of Latin.

Reading received another boost from the Reformation. Protestants, and in England especially the Puritans, promoted the individual study of the Bible. For the Puritans, religious reading went hand in hand with practical, business-oriented reading:

Reading was inextricably associated with ‘improvement,’ with cultivation of the prudential virtues and the more easily acquired amenities of conduct. The books most in request were those which either showed the way to a morality acceptable in the eyes both of God and of Mammon or brought the ideals of humanistic conduct down to the level of the common man. (Altick, 26)

At the same time, the Puritans denounced books of a lascivious and idle nature such as chivalric tales or ballads (these genres nonetheless thrived in chapbooks, and sometimes, as in the case of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, under the pretense of moral instruction).

All in all, learning how to read, whether you were a nobleman, member of the clergy or of a more humble origin, was less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The pamphlets of the Civil War remedied this lack of reading material to some extent. The writing of the Civil war period also drew attention to the role of reading in politics and government (arguably the most famous of the polemics on reading is Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), a powerful rebuke of censorship). But after the Commonwealth, positive attitudes to the teaching of reading came under attack:

During the Tudor period educational opportunity had been reasonably democratic, for the medieval belief persisted that all men, regardless of worldly station, were bound together in one society under God. Its social status bulwarked by feudal privileges, the upper class could afford to tolerate a certain amount of ambition on the part of the inferior. But with altering economic conditions, with the rise of the mercantile middle class, which forced the extremes of society farther apart, and with the gradual weakening of feudal privileges, the upper class urgently needed to shore up its own position. The essential tolerance that had eased its relations with the lower class gave way to condescension and even contempt. […] Soame Jenyns spoke for many men of his century when he maintained in 1757 that ignorance was “the appointed lot of all born to poverty and the drudgeries of life, … the only opiate capable of infusing that sensibility, which can enable them to endure their miseries of the one and the fatigues of the other .. a cordial, administered by the gracious hand of providence, of which they ought never to be deprived by an ill-judged and improper education.” (Altick, 30-32)

As a result, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1699 established schools for the masses that kept the syllabus to a minimum, teaching the pupils nothing beyond what were considered proper Christian principles and duties. Fortunately, the reactionaries of the Restoration period were not able to slow down the rise of reading for long. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, argued that “Reading Christians […] will be knowing Christians” and established a thriving book trade among his followers that did a great deal towards popularising literature.

Another important step was the rise of a newspaper and coffeehouse culture. Just as books, newspapers were too expensive for most readers, but they enjoyed great popularity in the coffeehouses, even among members of the lower classes. The bulk of public reading remained in the hands of the upper and middle classes, however. The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose aim was “bringing philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses” (qtd. in Altick, 46), diffused the interest in periodicals and books and thus paved the way for establishing a solid middle class readership.

James Lackingtons Temple of Muses

A breakthrough in book publishing as well as the reading of fiction, which up to this point was looked upon with disdain, occurred with the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. First published in 1740, Pamela sold five editions (ca. 20,000 copies) in a year, a bestseller in an age when buying books was still an exception. The success of early novels such as Richardson’s revealed the potential of the book market (in particular, the potential of the female readership) and consequently helped to expand the book and library trade, which up to that point had been confined to stationaries and books sold ‘on the side’. James Lackington (1746-1815) revolutionized the book trade when he set up the “Temple of the Muses” in London. “Over the main entrance appeared the sign, whose proud claim no one evidently challenged, CHEAPEST BOOKSELLERS IN THE WORLD” (Altick, 58). Besides Lackington’s temple and the stalls of secondhand booksellers, the demand for cheap books was met by circulating libraries, the first of which is attributed to Allan Rasmay in 1725.

The rising amount of reading material reached its apex in the publication of Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809) The Rights of Man in 1791, following the aftermath of the French Revolution. Similarly successful were the publications trying to countervail the impact of Paine’s writings, notably the Cheap Repository Tracts by Hannah More (1745-1833). They taught publishers how to produce and distribute reading matter on a mass scale, ushering in the age of commercial cheap publishing. But likewise, they renewed the upper classes’  concern over the common reader and the reading public. Although the success of Paine’s and More’s publications was tied to the years of the revolution, their “astounding circulation figures […] had enabled the ruling class of England for the first time to grasp in concrete terms the size of the existing public” (Altick, 76):

Thus, in the turbulence of the 1790’s, the emergence of a reading public among the humble brought England face to face with a major social problem, a problem destined to be shadowed for several decades by the threat, real or imaginary, of a revived Jacobinism. Tom Paine and Hannah More between them had opened the book to the common English reader. But was it merely a book — or a Pandora’s box of infinite trouble? (Altick, 77)

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. [1957] Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, 1963.


Reading Comics

The Valve is hosting a book event on Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics (I have just noticed that the dust jacket design features thinking clouds, a pun on Wolk’s surname (Wolke = cloud in German) — how awfully clever!).

In a previous article on Sequart, Wolk and Timothy Callahan, another comic book devotee, talk about reading comics and notions such as “bad readers”, “authorial intent” and “interpretation”. Callahan sums up his position as follows:

I do place the onus of interpretation fully on the shoulders of the reader. A text has no responsibility to “be” anything. It doesn’t have to be entertaining, or suspenseful, or funny, or even clear. It simply has to exist. Then it’s up to the reader to figure it out.

I couldn’t agree more, although I would want to add that the reader must also answer the question as to what is (part of) the text and what isn’t. Callahan’s repeated reference to the “incompleteness of the text” suggests that he believes the text (or the “work of art”) to exist independently of a reader defining the text’s boundaries. However, if we truly want to place the “onus of interpretation” on the reader, shouldn’t we grant that it is in fact the reader who has to posit, consciously or unconsciously, the boundaries of the text he or she is experiencing? After all, a reader’s approach to and experience of a new book (or comic, for that matter) is contingent on his or her reading history, and depending on the associations, intertextual links, thoroughness or laziness of the reader, he or she may link the current text (that is, the novel, the short story, the comic) to other texts, which by virtue of this link function as though they were one text rather than two.

Also worth reading: John Holbo’s follow-up post on The New Skrullicism.