Posts Tagged ‘reading experience


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.


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.