Since getting started on this blog I’ve been thinking a lot about how we image reading, and more broadly knowledge. The classic picture of a man or woman, body slumped in a chair or reclining on a bed or laying under a tree, head inclined in to a book. This is our sense of what reading is, and in a larger sense of how knowledge is gained and demonstrated.
It’s a difficult image in some respects because, in fact, we can’t really tell whether reading is going on at all simply from the fact of its physical representation. For all we know the person who seems as if they are half-asleep may in fact be half-asleep. Think of the association of reading fiction with being in dream worlds. The act of reading itself, especially silent reading, is in some respects unimage-able. We can’t see the translations that occur between marks on a page that become letters and words and then are associated with meanings in the mind. We accept on trust that the student with her book open in the back of the room is, in fact, reading, rather than drifting into a half-world as we lecture on at the front of the room.
I think working on the blog has made me acutely more interested in the physical image of reading. How could I choose relevant images for a blog taken up with something so ethereal as reading? My avatar came from a library at Upsala University (I think, I can’t remember). I was taken by the classic image of the hunched body at the desk, but also that it was obviously a middle-aged man, somewhat monkish. Finally, that you couldn’t see the face—which seemed to me to be something about reading and something about what I wanted the blog to be. Reading is a kind of facelessness, a kind of disappearance of the self that is itself enriching and expansive. This is why I think all the focus on reading as creativity and self-assertion among so many poststructuralists—people like Roland Barthes who want to turn reading in to an alternative form of writing—is missing something that’s relatively essential and important. The disappearance of the self in reading is precisely what we desire. The loss of self is goal, not dread outcome of the process of reading.
One thing that struck me in searching for an appropriate avatar—which I pursued by searching Google images—is that images of reading are almost exclusively associated with books. Reading means, so far as the visual imagination is concerned, reading books. I sifted through a couple of dozen pages of images and came up with not one image of a computer or a computer screen. Indeed, realizing that I was interested in pursuing the conjunction of reading and writing, I thought it was a little ironic that my wordpress template has a pen at the top. Of course, I have the option of putting in a computer keyboard, and tried to find one, but perhaps the point is made. In our imaginations, reading and writing is still a matter of pen and paper. As I said yesterday, my colleague is not even certain that what we do on things like this blog is properly called writing. Why call it blogging if it is writing plain and simple. Similarly, we surf the web, we don’t read the web. It’s a new and different process, for which we don’t have adequate visual images.
My same colleague objects that we won’t go with electronic books because we like the physicality of things. Well…I didn’t point out to her that, in fact, Kindles and Sony readers and my 17-inch Macintosh computer screen are all physical to a fault. But somehow we imagine that computers have no physical presence. Without physical presence they cannot image that most insubstantial of things, the reading process. In actual fact, I think that we have constructed a certain kind of “physicality” that we associate with books, while we are only beginning to develop a sense of the physicality of computers.
Along these lines, our library at school is hosting a very nice work of art by a couple of our students. A book with reading glasses. I’m having trouble optimizing this to fit on the page, but you can access ” Vision of Knowledge” by clicking on the title. My general sense is that computers make both books and reading glasses anachronistic. We can read on the Internet, and if the text is too small, who needs glasses. Just hit text zoom.
The other interesting thing about this image is the text itself, which, of course, we read. “A vision of knowledge.” My general sense is that despite the tremendous emphasis on the Internet as a resource for knowledge and learning, we continue to imagine, to have visions of knowledge primarily through our cultural repertoire related to books. Again, a quick google search for images related to the word “knowledge” called up dozens of pictures of books, various diagrams of the brain, and a lot of variously dull and variously interesting charts and graphs. One thing that didn’t come up were images of computers. I scrolled through about 100 and some odd images before I got to any image of a computer at all.
I’m not sure that there’s any great lesson to be drawn here. However, I think that if we can’t picture something, this means that we don’t quite know what to do with it, that we don’t quite know what it is, at least for us. The digital world is inescapable, but at least with regards to reading and knowledge we still don’t know exactly what it means, how to imagine ourselves as a part of it.
Side note: There’s a lot of stuff out there on the gender of reading, of course. There’s an absolutely fabulous book of images entitled “Reading Women” that I recommend highly. At one point I thought ALL images of reading were women, though this, of course, isn’t true at all.