I have a problem with the customary reproaches leveled against those who, it is said, don’t read seriously and in-depthly (apologies for the adverb but I couldn’t resist). Deep reading. Such an interesting concept! One that makes me think of diving rather than desk-bound perusal. But that’s just me.
We want reading to be deep. That’s not all. We want all reading to be deep. All of it, page after page, book after book. We want our minds busy in an almost professional manner. Like academics, if you get my drift. Because academics – well, they know how to read well. Their reading is perfectly tuned. It can spot an intention, the hint of a meaning, no matter how small. The reading of an academic is able to tell you, on the spot, what the author truly wanted to say. You see how this kind of reading is x-ray-like. It can pierce through a book, it can see beyond the visible. Reading of this kind blooms like a flower that’s taking itself very, very seriously.
But there’s something to be said here, before we go mad with passion. A question. How many people do read a book with all these good intentions? Academics, students, scholars. Ok, all ticked. But who else?
Behind this question stands, obviously, the generalized concern I’ve noticed (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) with the perils of new technologies.
For a long time we complained, if I remember correctly, that not enough was being read. That books were waiting in vain to be picked up from their shelves by individuals too interested in watching tv or playing video games, or simply being couch-potatoes that fried slowly in the oil of their own apathy. Then something happened. (In the way technology comes about, it always seems as thought it has appeared out of the blue.) Tablets and smart phones came about, cloud storage and online databases, and now there’s more reading taking place than ever in the history of humanity. Are we satisfied, though? No. We’ve reformulated another complaint. Those who were not reading before are now reading incorrectly, inappropriately, irreverently even.
|Source: Academic Sciences|
The problem with this new complaint is primarily a strategic one. It belongs in the infrastructure of learning. How is one who wasn’t reading at all supposed to have learnt, by his/her own accord, to read like a pro? How? As we have agreed before, they’ve never had the tools to be Readers. Never. They never liked it, they never had that special chemistry within their souls, they never did what was necessary. Then why are we complaining about them? I’ll leave this question here (no need for an answer) because I’ve got another one at the ready. Haven’t we somehow forgotten that most readers read for a kind of pleasure that’s more akin to movie-watching and videogame-playing than to any highbrow objective? Take a look around. There are more readers at the beach, in a train or bus, on a bench in a park, in bathtubs and on toilet seats – than in the world’s libraries. Note: there’s nothing wrong with reading like that. What I mean to say is this: most readers do it because they want to relax. Reading like a pro is painful. It requires a pen or pencil in one hand, a library in the other (to find concordances, to draw parallels, to note down peculiarities of style and intertextual similarities). That’s why reading like a pro is usually limited to the pro.
The reader who seeks relaxation wants their hands free of any prosthetics. Hands-free reading is for fun. It is for giggling when a funny passage comes about, for the heartbeats to accelerate when suspense kicks in, for pallor to settle on one’s face when he/she comes across a horror scene.
One way of reading
The complaint against new readers comes from a minority group: the careful readers, the practitioners of close reading, the examiners for whom reading is not skimming but perusal, not browsing but inspection. This minority group forgets an essential aspect of the story they tell: they’re trained to read this way. They’ve spent hours and hours educating themselves, turning their attention from the easy bits or complicating the same to the point where they’re turned into something unrecognizable. These readers deal well with difficult texts because they’ve made those texts difficult. Self-flagellation is the favourite technique of the readers with busy hands. They don’t accept ease because, for some reason, ease comports the risk of stultification. It’s like looking at a horse that’s gone through expensive dressage and not seeing that the same animal is equally capable of pulling a cart.
With reading, though, the problem is that its high horses are taken for granted. There are rites of passage throughout school, various forms of taming and training, all meant to educate the reader, to make them sensitive to the finely tuned and the highly pitched. But what should happen with those who haven’t (for one reason or another) acquired the techniques that guarantee their acquisition of greatness? Those who have fallen through the cracks and yet still want to read a book the best they can? The best they can!
This is where my problem lies. In applying that one-size-fits-all adage that says, ‘a book can be read in a million ways.’ If that’s the case (and it must be!) then hands-free reading is also a form of reading. So let’s accept it. I don’t care that it doesn’t add value to the ontology of reading. I don’t care that it leaves the reader speechless at the end, incapable of articulating a thought, of formulating a cogent analysis. It’s a form or reading and that’s that.
For those who want to reach depths, there’s room enough to develop their own passion. That’s because their reading is also one form of reading. It’s not the absolute form, it’s not the only one. The democracy of intellectual matters contains, like the democracy of politics, strong binary opposites: high and low, poor and rich, adventurous and timid.
What goes unacknowledged in this story is a simple fact of personal obligation: I must not impose my pleasure upon another subject. That would amount to tyranny. To perversity. I can draw attention to the fact that other options are likely to exist – that goes without saying. I can, if I am smarter, better equipped, luckier, I can point out the richness of the world of reading. But I must not talk about reading in terms of preferences. De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. I must not pull my nose in disgust when I hear another’s preferences. My likes cannot be another’s, unless by accident. If I belong in a community of interpreters (as Stanley Fish likes to put it), that belonging is the result of pure chance. It’s not unlike being born in a particular language.