27 February 2012

The good and great reader

“We read to know we are not alone,” said C. S. Lewis, which is one widely quoted viewpoint, but readers read for many reasons, including mere diversion, as trivial as watching TV.

Sometimes readers read because they are alone. A book is company. The act of reading invites the reader to participate in the construction of the narrative. He imagines scenes, notices things, wonders where the story is heading, and identifies, perhaps, with one or more of the characters. The book engages him. While he is turning the pages he is less lonely.

Such a reader is already at Base Camp, but above him rises the difficult, intensely rewarding peak which only the good and great reader can hope to attempt.
Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things” – what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia – this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat”, or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) – so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.
Writing good fiction is difficult. The physical means of producing it are so easily acquired, and self-delusion is so widespread, that many people fancy themselves skilled when they are not. In the same way, reading appears to be simple. You are taught at school how to decipher the marks on a page and fancy yourself a reader, but unless you develop your technique you will never even get near the foothills. That’s fair enough, if diversion is all you seek, if you are prepared to forgo the panorama awaiting you at the summit.

At the core of reading technique is discernment. First you must discern whether what you are reading is sincere. Has it been written from the heart?

Next: does the author know his job? You cannot construct a piece of furniture if you know nothing about carpentry. Watch out for an inadequate vocabulary, an absence of poetry, an ignorance of flow – and by “flow” I mean the ability to present meanings in the correct order, which is the key to storytelling. Does the author have a clear idea of what he’s up to? If he doesn’t, you certainly won’t, and he is wasting unique and precious hours of your life, hours you can never get back.

By practising discernment you improve your taste. You graduate to better work, and as you graduate the act of reading becomes more and more involving. Your mental eyesight becomes keener. You appreciate an artist when you find one and understand what he is doing, and then you begin to plug into his mind.

I have said elsewhere on this blog that writing fiction is primarily a function of the subconscious: the ability to share someone else’s inmost feelings is one of the most exciting rewards for the good and great reader. While reading a good and great book, the good and great reader’s mind merges with that of the author, is exercised, enlarged, and made stronger. The chances are he will read the rest of the author’s oeuvre. He will do this in order to clarify and expand what he has already gained, to check that the experience was authentic, and to see how the author’s sensibilities have changed over the years.

There is, however, more than that to reading a good and great book. The prose itself will be beautiful. Its aptness and rhythm will give you delight. Its vocabulary will enrich your own, allowing you to express yourself more clearly and make closer contact with your fellow humans. That alone is worth the price of admission.

But it gets better. Literature offers an infinity of alternative worlds. The reader inhabits them in complete safety. He can learn from the mistakes the characters make; he can admire and try to emulate their generosity or wisdom. By so doing, he grows spiritually. He takes upon himself “the mystery of things”.

The deepest mystery is an understanding of other people, and that, I feel, is what C. S. Lewis had in mind.


Elle said...

Reading comprehension v. Understanding its writer

I find Nabokov’s view in this matter (in this quotation you’ve excerpted), extreme. (Although it is logical that a writer would look to analyze his readers – and fair play too in that they, themselves are subject to by all types of criticism by self-proclaimed experts in reading experience.) Nabokov had often been critical of his readers, though (seemingly always judging that they will not - or very few will - understand his true meaning – his true intent) to the point where he even creates the integral, fictitious ‘interpreter’ who essentially writes his book based on the ‘correct’ interpretation his poem, Pale Fire. Lolita, too, contains a Forward by a fictitious scholar who attempts define the writer’s purpose and perspectives. Unique… maybe. Not meaning to be terribly critical of Nabokov who, himself, engaged in illustrious “fancywork” as so few talented writers can. Perhaps he was led to this paranoia (of the risk of being misunderstood) through what he had explained as deficiencies in his attempts to write outside of his mother tongue (“On a book entitled Lolita”, essay by Nabokov, ND). Or, perhaps his view of all of mankind was here exposed in metaphor.

By contrast, poet Billy Collins takes an interesting view of the teachers/readers of literature in his poem called “Introduction to Poetry” http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html, which leads me to question – is the value of the art somehow greater than the medium used to create it?

Nabokov was, of course, not alone in considering his readers in terms of their interpretation of literature. Reader-response theories of the late ‘50s early ‘60s reject the idea that the text, itself, was central to a reader’s experience. A teacher of literature, Louise Rosenblatt, who is widely studied in the field of Educational Research examined (among other things) the ways that readers read, defining differences. She called reading for information or answers “Efferent” and explained “Aesthetic” reading as the personal transaction a reader finds with the art, itself.

“There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic literary work; there are in reality only the potential millions of individual readers of the potential millions of individual literary works” (Rosenblatt, L., Literature, 1938, p. 32).

In her introduction in a reprint of The reader, the text, the poem: the transactional theory of the literary work (1978), Louise Rosenblatt writes “Once published, a book leads its own life in transaction with readers…”.

Elle said...

Comment posted in 2 parts as I didn’t realize there was a word count limit…

This idea of the transactional process, similar to what you describe happens between the reader and the text, is an important understanding for teachers and writers.

I recall your article titled “Politics and Fiction” (http://richardherley.blogspot.com/2010/01/politics-and-fiction.html) in which you refer to this ‘place’, this zone, this meditative state you have experienced while engaged in your creative state. So outstandingly revealing of the nature and creation of art was this article that, at the time of its publication, I shared it with my writing students. They were fledglings, not fully skilled but extremely imaginative. (Secretly, I’d hoped that this concept of ‘a deeper source’ which you portrayed so vividly, would not be misunderstood as ‘anything goes’.)

Kids often being less tinged with inhibitions and skepticism than we adults, I wondered if they could more easily ‘stand aside’ to allow this inner source (this non-self) to come through on the page. Did they reach this meditative state? I cannot say, but my experiment was not a failure. They were, as often they were, engrossed in their compositions and maybe, along with this new awareness, was planted a seed wading through gestation. Funnily enough, one of these pre-adolescents was later able to compare her writing experiences with her keen experiences during an athletic endeavor - being in what athletes sometimes call ‘the zone’. (It may be a similar place, do you think? – a unity of mind, body, and spirit, perhaps.)

On another brief, but related note, this recent article by Tim Parks also discusses perceptions on the writing process: http://tinyurl.com/738mocm

Ben Duffy said...

"We read to know we are not alone," said C. S. Lewis.

"Sometimes readers read because they are alone," says Richard Herley.

To these two viewpoints (both of them valid and insightful), I will add a third, one that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, commutes by train, nose buried in the Kindle, praying not to be accosted by any crackheads, schizophrenics, hustlers, or preachers: Sometimes we read to be alone. :)