I’ve been reading Alberto Manguel‘s A Reader on Reading. Some random thoughts:
x—“Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world—except for a few constant landmarks—are never one and the same. Heraclitus’s bon mot about time applies equally well to my reading: “you never dip into the same book twice.””
–In my own experience, a central experience, if not THE central experience through which my tastes, prejudices and memories have changed has been the experience of reading itself. That is, books, are not infinitely malleable pieces of dough to be made in to what the reader wants them to be at a whim—what seems to be Roland Barthes notion in The Death of the Author. On the other hand, neither do books show the same and constant aspect regardless of time and circumstance. Rather books are agents of change, shaping me in to something different than what I was before. I do not say, as might seem logical, that books shape us into the readers they need. This might follow from something like Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader or the Holland’s theory of the Ideal reader. I don’t think books have that kind of agency or that authors have that kind of knowingness. But some books are like mountains that must be scaled, others like fires that must be endured, others streams to be forded. A book’s agency is found in the kind of action it demands of me, and it’s nature changes for me to the degree that I am changed by the action it affords. I may by turns and by age turn from the mountain as too daunting, gasp and crawl halfway up its face before giving up in or scale it with the ease of an Olympian. In every case I am experience the mountain as it is, as it shows its face to me. It is not that the Olympian truly knows the mountain for what it is, because the climber who scales its height without a second breath cannot see what is there to seen by the man crawling in exhaustion, his breath in the dirt.
x—“I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”
–I wonder, if it is beyond the author’s intentions and the reader’s hopes, how is it that books make us wiser? We cannot say, I think, that the words on the page have a power unto themselves apart from their human utterance and reception. Manguel ridicules this notion as a form of magical thinking elsewhere in the book. But what is it then, in the experience of books that makes us wiser? I agree with the sentiment, but can’t define the agency of such making. Indeed, it often seems to me that when writers—fiction writers at least—set out to impart wisdom they more often impart tedium and irritation. Fiction writers should not be oracles; those who try would be better off becoming essayists or preachers. Nor am I particular taken by readers who approach books as if they contain wisdom, as if Melville or Faulkner or Morrison were a secondary scripture. If there is wisdom, it does seem to me that the wisdom might come as an accidental gift of the act of reading itself, not in what is read or who is reading or who is being read. But at this point I may merely be trying to be oracular.
Might you say that Melville, Faulkner, and Morrison impart an implied wisdom? Which is to say, they don’t so much as knock us over the head with a oracular message (although Melville does moralize quite a bit) as they gently hint, through their stories, ways of learning about the world and becoming wise to it.
Nice post; I think I’ll take a look at Manguel sometime.
Well, how far to push this. Sidney says the task of poetry is to teach and delight. And Wallace Stevens believed the best poetry was “disguised pronunciamento.” So the idea that we ought to learn something from reading is hard to argue with. But I wonder if we receive lessons/wisdom better in some genres than others. Benjamin felt that the storyteller imparted a kind of collective wisdom in a way that the novel could not, and Bakhtin believed Dostoevsky did not promulgate a point of view. I.e. he didn’t rig the game by privileging one character over another, one voice over another. Instead, every voice is believable, every voice has it’s own power. Of course, Bakhtin also believed this of Dickens, but in my own view Dickens is tremendously didactic, though also wonderful and powerful in a way different from Dostoevsky. So I wonder if we receive overt wisdom more readily from lyric poetry or essay than we do from novelists. But then I’m left with the question of what it is that we actually learn from novel. It seems to me it must not be something in the content, but something in the form or in the act of reading. Almost a way of being or perceiving. Maybe this could be called wisdom, I’m not sure.