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Prelude: A Story of Reading to Live (Section 3 of 3)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

(Continued from here. Here's the full Table of Contents.)

Let me say a word about this broader conversation about reading and what I believe I have to add to it that hasn’t been said already. The conversation as it stands might be summed up in this way: 1) reading books is happening less and less in our culture, especially among younger generations who have been raised with other media, particularly the internet, that draw more of their attention, energy, and time (sometimes, there is a also subcurrent of worry that when reading does happen it is less and less often books cherished by scholars for bearing the core values of the Western tradition); and 2) reading should happen more and more because a) it is a pleasure; or b) it is an important means of intellectual self-discovery; or c) it is an important source for knowing the things an informed member of our society ought to know to function intelligently.

What I have to say is that yes, certainly, reading should happen more and more carefully, and yes, reading can do all these things, but most of all reading can be more than a pleasure or an intellectual responsibility we owe to ourselves or our society. In fact, in reading we can practice breaking down such dichotomies as pleasure and task, freedom and responsibility, emotion and intellect, self and other or self and world. Reading can be a joy and, as such, can be practice for a joyful life. Or, to state it another way, what I want to add to the conversation is, first, the importance of reading slowly and carefully with a mind and heart open to unforeseen discoveries and transformations; second, the role that affect and emotion play in making reading the pleasure and the source of intellectual self-discovery it can be; and third, that the beneficial effects of reading in this way can be far more profound and far-reaching than merely making us functional citizens. Reading in this way can help us to become more fully functional human beings filled with desire and intimately connected with our power to act creatively.

I believe that the best way to convey what I mean by the value of reading to live is simply by doing it. So most of the rest of this book will consist of eight readings of texts that I have loved that both demonstrate and illustrate the practice of reading to live in several of its many different aspects. It might be helpful if I first offer an overview of the basic features of what I mean by reading to live. I don’t mean this overview to be taken as a formula to be applied. As my own readings will show, reading to live is above all a relational encounter with the words of someone else and entails a willingness to let that encounter shatter formulas and disrupt preconceptions and agendas. It would be more accurate to think of this overview as one of a number of possible ways to distill into a few points what I think the readings I will share have in common with each other.

Reading to live is slow, like a three-foot hike. It is reading that loves words and so it takes its time with them and gets close to them. In so doing, reading to live is mindful and attentive to the myriad sensations and possibilities of meaning offered by the words on the page. Reading to live is likely to entail, at least on occasion, rereading, sometimes many times, sometimes at intervals of only an instant and at other times intervals of years or even decades. At different points in this book I will use adjectives like slow, mindful, attentive, deep, close, and intensive interchangeably to evoke different facets of the pace and quality of attention entailed in reading to live.

I want to emphasize that the call to read closely says nothing about the length of what is read or the length or exhaustiveness of our report to others, if one even emerges, of the reading experience. One can read closely three words of a text or a 600 page work, and the result of that close reading may be a sentence or an entire volume, or even just a passing and unspoken thought. But for the moment, I mean to suggest a reading that is like a kind of stroll. Whether that stroll takes place in a crowded city or an isolated park, in the countryside or through the woods, reading to live is a stroll through a text in which we allow time for noticing, for pausing, for retracing our steps, for following curiosity down what may turn out to be an unfulfilling path, for being moved.

We can drive from St. Louis to Chicago on Interstate 55 and get there in no more than four or five hours. Along the way we’ll see open fields, dotted with trees and, every ten miles or so, an interchange dense with gas stations, mini-marts, and McDonald’s. Or we can drive from St. Louis to Chicago on old US Route 66, which runs more or less alongside Interstate 55. It will take us double the time and along the way we’ll see houses, churches, stalks of corn rising just a few yards from our car window, old dilapidated diners and shiny new ones, sharp curves that we have to slow down to negotiate and small towns that we have to slow down to pass through. At times the road will seem simply to end and we’ll have to pause to figure out how to keep going. Sometimes we’ll go so slow that we notice a sign “Pie $1.99” and that will draw us in and we’ll stop and sit at a counter and have a conversation with a stranger. We branch out.

Similarly, among the effects of the slowness of reading to live is the discovery of complexity and ambiguity at ever more minute scales. The slow pace of reading to live delivers to us, when we are willing, an awareness of the rich complexity and ambiguity of the book, story, language, and words we are reading. And this tremendously enriched experience has a very important effect. By complicating it suspends, our sense of certainty.

Think of the drive to know, with certainty, as that drive to get to Chicago as fast as possible with no detours or distractions. But in the slow time of reading to live it is no longer clear what there is to be certain about, what there is to know, or what knowing would even mean anyway. In reading to live, the imperative to read for knowledge and information gradually yields to the desire to read to sense and learn and feel and think and discover and create. Awareness of sensations and affect flood the space created when we suspend our drive to get to the truth that we might have imagined is held, like water in a pitcher, in the meaningless container of language. We may gradually stop thinking of language as a clear container for truths that are themselves just accurate pictures corresponding to the way things actually are in the world. Gradually, we start to experience words, sensations, feelings, thoughts, and world as all parts or aspects of a single fabric that is being in the world.

In these ways, reading to live is open. By that I mean open to nonsense, paradox, ambiguity, and difficulty, to doubt and uncertainty, to what may sometimes be uncomfortable feelings of pain or sadness or anger, though also, of course, to feelings of love, sympathy, excitement and joy, open to connection with others and the world and open to a tender awareness of the vulnerability that comes with that connection. This openness is facilitated by the slow pace of reading to live, but that slowness is not in itself sufficient to provoke it. Even in a stroll or meandering drive we may find ourselves trying to close our hearts and minds to what we encounter. Therefore reading as openness entails an active effort to recognize those impulses to close ourselves off when they arise and to allow them to pass, even though we may not know what might occur when we do so. As we read with openness we find that the hard boundary between our reading self and the author other begins to slip and blur and perhaps to dissolve entirely. We transform the text and the text transforms us, much as happens when we love.

As we suspend the drive to treat what we read as the repository of a single meaning or as a mere source of information and follow instead the paths of desire, feeling, doubt and curiosity, we may find ourselves led well beyond the text we are reading. We may be led to personal associations such as memories of past experiences, of reading or otherwise. We may be led to think of other texts, by the same author or by authors we know influenced him or her, by critics or scholars writing about the text we are reading, or even texts at first glance seemingly unrelated to the one we are reading. We may be led out of the textual world entirely, into feelings and thoughts about the world we live in, about its natural or social dimensions, about the people in it, strangers or loved ones, about the problems, challenges, and joys of living in this world. Reading to live entails affirming the value of following these paths connecting the text to what is outside the text and making permeable the boundary between the text and our reading of it and the world and our living in it.

In this way, finally, reading to live is a fundamentally inventive, creative activity, in which we take the given materials of text, self, and world and treat them slowly, openly, associatively, so as to at once passively and actively generate new relations within and among them, forging in the process new possible ways of being for all three. This creative dimension of reading I consider to be pragmatic. I mean pragmatic in the widest sense of what may be practical. I do not mean that we read narrowly and hurriedly to find solutions to problems presented within or outside the text. Rather, I mean that in the course of reading we widen the field of our possible practical engagements with ourselves in the world; which is to say, we augment our freedom and our joy.

Let me conclude, finally, with a brief description of the organization of the book. In the remaining readings of this book I hope to develop the account I have already offered of these basic issues and of the role that a certain kind of reading that is also a certain way of living can play in responding to those issues. I’ve divided the book into two parts, with four readings in each. These readings are like lessons in the sense that they are occasions in which, in reading, I have learned something about what reading to live can be. They are, in other words, lessons for me, which I want to share with you.

In Part One, I provide a series of four readings of cherished texts that serve three purposes. First, they are examples of reading to live. Second, they elaborate different dimensions of reading to live. Third, they offer an understanding, from the perspective of reading to live, of the texts themselves. I’ve chosen the texts I will be reading primarily because I love them, because they have called me back for rereadings, and because they have equipped me for living at different points in my life. Of course, the list of texts that have worked this way on me is much longer than what you will find in this book. I’ve narrowed that much longer list to these texts because they are a mix of genres, periods, and traditions, from British adolescent fantasy epic to Latin American short story, from 20th century American to 14th century Korean poetry, and because I find that they provide especially rich material for learning to read to live.

The four readings comprising Part Two put the practice of reading to live to the test, in response to one of the most basic facts of our existence: death. Stephen Batchelor encourages his readers to consider the question: “Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” Such an emphasis on death may seem to run counter to what we usually think of as conducive to the cultivation of joy, not to mention to Spinoza’s own assertion that “a free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

But the point of such a meditation is not to encourage a morbid and paralyzing preoccupation with our own mortality of the sort Spinoza cautioned against. It is, first of all, to clear space for an appropriately vital placement of death within our mental life. The presupposition behind Batchelor’s injunction to consider this question is that, our refusal to acknowledge the fact of death, affectively and intellectually, makes of our lives a kind of continuous, unconscious flight from death. We become driven by the urge to flee from death, which plunges us erratically into behaviors designed to do little more than keep the thought of death out of our awareness.

Considering death in the way that Batchelor encourages is intended to permit us to transform our relationship to death in order to free us to live our lives affirmatively, from the point of view of productive desire (rather than reactive fear). It offers a path, consistent in my opinion with Spinoza’s, for learning how to let go of death and to cultivate freedom and wisdom. But it is important to emphasize this does not mean that Batchelor believes we can come up with an answer to the question. The point is to awaken a felt-sense of what it means to live a life that will stop. I might say that Part Two of Reading to Live offers a series of examples of reading to live a life that will stop.


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