A text by Mark Edmundson explains well an idea I’ve heard before, that English majors read
not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?
English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of reading, similar to Edmundson’s description, as sharing in the mind, the mental activity, of the writer.
But I’ve been thinking of this sharing in a slightly different way — that a person reading a text is like a computer running software that simulates something (like flight) or maybe a person reading a text is like a player piano recreating music from paper.
And while this analogy is as imperfect and arbitrary as any, considering it has given me some other ideas. For one, thinking of a text as a program for a human mind to run makes it clear that the text is representing the writer’s mind-activity (the voice that the writer thinks in) rather than representing whatever the text is about. For example, when I read a biography of Lincoln, I’m recreating in my mind the thoughts that the biographer’s mind had about Lincoln, rather than recreating Lincoln himself. [And against Edmundson, I’d argue that it’s not just literary texts that do this — but that any text — nonfiction, instruction manuals, etc. — is the product of a writerly consciousness and so conveys that consciousness as it conceives those words.]
And so, we don’t have to ask whether a text accurately represents reality — as if such a thing were possible or even desirable. I don’t really know what’s happening physically when I see a rainbow, but I can use words to describe what I’m seeing and thinking, how I’m interpreting what I see, and that human interpretation is something others can share by recreating my ideas from my words. [Yes, I know scientists have an explanation of light refracting and whatnot, but that doesn’t suffice to explain my mind’s experience. Also, the science explanation, too, is just another, different kind of interpretation-by-human text.]
A photo of a rainbow can show, in a limited (two-dimensional) way, another person what the photographer could see from his/her perspective. A person who wasn’t present can view the photo image and construct one’s own interpretation from that visual data. A text cannot quite capture or convey sensory reality that way. To look at a page of text is to see ink-shapes on paper (or screen). To read the word “rainbow” is not to see colors in an arc in the sky, but one can interpret the word (using one’s own prior experiences) and imagine the visuals. And of course, through our senses, we live in a world in which there are sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes, and we use these senses simultaneously — smelling, tasting, and seeing a raspberry, say.
We can’t do that in text. We’re down to one linear direction (sequence in time) in text, one sense at a time. And yet, there’s something about this that may match how our minds process the world — yes, our minds can take in senses simultaneously, but we don’t seem to be able to talk about our senses except one at a time. And this way that our conscious, abstracting minds think is, I’m suggesting, pretty close to how we say or write our experiences, and then this linearly described experience is what we can hear or read and share.
So, no, reading a description of someone in a cafe in Venice isn’t quite like being there; and yet, reading what someone else thinks about being there (being a mental tourist?) can be, perhaps, more of a travel-experience than being a physical tourist might be. I can drag my body to other places on the Earth, but still, it’s just me seeing these new-to-me places with my familiar-to-me mind. Wherever I go, there I am. But reading can really allow me to get outside my own mind.
And at times when I’ve been reading too much, or taking in too much other media (which “mediates” the world for me — which processes the world through others’ minds before it gets to me), I’ve felt like I haven’t had enough time to be, or to think as, myself. I often drive with my radio off for this reason. So I don’t mean to say that it’s always a good thing to let others’ ideas and experiences into our heads, but it’s not always a bad thing, either. For instance, sometimes I’ll read when I feel tired or stressed — reading lets me escape my own worries, my own familiar mindset, for a while.
So we may not be experiencing what Venice the place is, but we’re experiencing what the writer experiences in Venice, and this can be tedious if, say, the writer tells us only about the reputation and myths of Venice. So much of journalistic-type writing seems to invoke the expectations and stereotypical ideas we may have of a place — Venice: Canals! Glorious history! Art! — as a way of inducing readers to relate, but of course, no one actually experiences the myths or generalities about a place. We instead experience particularities, and the longer we live in a place, the harder it may feel to form genuine generalities about the place. I’ve lived in Ogle County, Illinois, most of my life, and it’d be harder for me to describe this place than it is a new place — of course, I have a shallow view of the new place, but I don’t know enough to feel bad about my shallow view.
I can remind myself that wherever one lives, it becomes home, with all its comforts and confines. But this also reminds me of the importance of the particular voice of the writer. And in my own writing, I often don’t want to convey just what I know. Though I may start from something I have already experienced or want to assert, I also try to, as I write, have a new idea — I want to write texts that are not static but show a sense of growth, of exploration, of trying new ideas and being open to new ideas. (For instance, I didn’t know when I started this post that it would become what I am writing now — I don’t want to know the future; I wanna have new ideas.) When I write, I want to have that open-minded, exploratory, even questioning experience (which is one way of defining creative writing?), and perhaps it is that experience that I want to share with readers. I don’t wish to adopt a tone or posture of lecturing in my writings, partly because that’s dull for me to write, and I think it’s also dull for others to read.
Now, I know that when I’m having open-mind writing time, I’m not perhaps very careful with the editing, and certainly the structure is more biological (branching out, recursive, etc.) than rhetorically familiar — which nonstandard writing can be a harder program for a reader to decode and run/follow. For another example, stream of consciousness texts may be attempting to represent a mind’s workings, and yet, stream of consciousness texts can be so hard to read that the reader never gets around to having the experience the writer intends.
That’s an argument for stylistic simplicity, I guess. But I also like the idea of spontaneous writing — giving the reader the sense of the writer’s raw mental-voice. If a writer’s voice is too heavily edited, or tries too hard to stay within the accepted forms, reading the text becomes more like visiting a chain store than going to an unexpected place.
P.S.: Another corollary would be that if one doesn’t like the mental-program one is running (that is, the text one is reading), then one can just stop running the program, stop reading. And perhaps that feeling is why some books drive us away — we just don’t feel like spending time in that person’s mind.