Able to Read
The Reader, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c.1770
From Sign and Sight:
Reading has only recently become a silent act. Two hundred years ago everyone read aloud. This was dictated by church ritual, in which one, or better said everyone, had to listen to the “holy” text. In the first cathedrals entire choruses of believers spoke aloud this reading material that they viewed as godly. This muttering was further practiced by those few people on earth who at the time were, by some miracle, able to read, as if everyone one of them fulfilled the role of today’s speakers and leaders. Then some anonymous Copernicus of reading came along, who brought the entire practice inside by following his text “in his mind”. Thus the letter-for-letter literalness of ecclesial or school reading was lost. Because what goes through my head when I do the work of reading is not necessarily the same as what someone else wrote.
One readily discovers this when undertaking a fresh reading of something that was once familiar. Not only do I rediscover what I had forgotten, but also I realise that “there” in the text I had read long ago there is nothing of what I expected to find! This is the valuable reading of a text, which the reader has created within himself by grinding up a mass of foreign material in his mill and transforming it into something different through unexpected combinations. Read again, many incidences that remained in one’s mind from before play out in a different way entirely.
We carry within the texts that fall into our hands. There are philosophers who believe: the things that we find in books are those that we have brought to them. Borges said that – his protagonist writes an already existing book all over again, convinced that only the repeat exists, not the original. In Musil’s novel, by the way, there is a strange librarian, who guards thousands of books without every having opened even one of them. But still he knows everything about them, because we apparently sometimes also read when we are not reading. As it is, libraries make normal people anxious, seeming like overload, regardless how orderly the catalogues may be. I therefore do understand those who flee from reading as if it were the plague. Everyone has a right to their individual fears. Canetti finds a way out of this in a novel about books by causing the library to burn down. However, after every barbarian plundering there will always be someone who reads the few remaining recognisable characters lying in the ashes.