Friday, March 18, 2005

Writing and reading



I shouldn't do it. It happens often enough to be called a habit, though hopefully not a fetish. A new, unread book - not fiction - with an index, here A History of Reading by Stephen Roger Fischer, gets the treatment.

If you flick with the with left thumb it has to be from back cover backwards. This means you will probably be left-handed. You may not have realised right-handers can't do it. In this one regard books are designed for left-handed people. But there is something else: from the left thumb flick to index, to the gathering of a reference and page number, and the follow on to the actual page is a smooth flow.

Perhaps a survey is in order here. Is sinestrality implicated in propensity for index checking? What of the ambidextrous? Teachers (or even as you lounge after the diner party with the coffee): start by handing out a book. Task: "You are being given this book for 1.5 minutes. There is no instruction for what you should with it." When the books are back you tell them how many flicked the books and of those who were left handers. Then the fun starts: they have 5 mins. to design an experiment to examine whether left handers flick indexes more than right-handers. This could be done in an English lesson - there will be a roar of "this isn't science!" - in order to draw the students minds to books from a different angle. Ultimately it will lead to discussions of what books are for, etc.

Here, it would be handy to mention what Sartre said in Les Mots:

Like Plato, I passed from knowledge to subject. I found more reality in the idea than in the thing because it was given to me first and because it was given as a thing. It was in books that I encountered the universe: digested,classified, labelled, meditated, still formidable.

By flicking A History of Reading left-handed it was naturally the index which came to hand first. As I flicked I recalled almost like a flash memory the nagging urge I had had the other day to remember the name of the book that the character Charlotte Rampling was playing in Under the Sand quoted to her new lover. Virginia Woolf, but which? Before the Woolf entry's number arrives it comes to me, The Waves, but it doesn't matter because I am already turning to the single Woolf entry in this book to find something very useful to me:

Though a writer can create a text in an infinite variety of ways, she usually - but not always - limits herself to one language, style, social register, message. A reader of her work, however, remains unlimited. A reader can chose to understand, react and interpret the author's work however the reader wants. Even unintentionally: what one reads in Hamlet at age 20, for example, will certainly not be what one reads in it at age 50. Indeed, as British novelist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) once remarked," To write down one's impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year would be virtually to record one's own biography". A literary text is not Scripture. Depending on context, it is at once mirror and prompt. No text, not even the most fundamental [sic] religious, dictatates to the reader. It is the reader who choses how to react, what to think. The wonder in reading is that the writer is never in control.

It is the reader who plays God.

In Greek mythology Narcissus was the beautiful youth who became enamoured of his reflection in a pool and pined away, eventually becoming the flower that still bears his name. Each book, each play, each poem we read is that pool. We find in it, and admire in it, only ourselves. As we change, the pool's image changes, and so we admire in the re-read text the rediscovered us. If truth be told, each text, independently of one's unique existence, contains a cosmos of potential flarreries. With all respect to Socrates, there is no 'correct' or 'authoritative' reading of anything. A written text lives its own life, from century to century and millenium to millenium, discovered or rediscovered for what it says differently to each changed society and each changed individual. No reading is ever definitive, as a reader reinvents herself or himself with every reading.

We are what we read and what we read is what we are.

My major pre-occupation has been to answer the question: Iis writing more 'successful' than film? Perhaps too simplified a question, but that's the gist. In an open folder which holds some of the fragments which I am beginning to compile to stir more thinking writing on Le grand project, there is, on top, a Sunday Telegraph article by Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his series In the picture. He is considering a Toby Glanville photograph, The Plaster's Mate (1992). His final sentance says:

...what every photograph is: a ghost of someone who will never be the same person, at the same moment, ever again.

This sends strong messages to me again, as it must have done before: there is a Post-It note which I have stuck at the top saying "It is the last sentance which I like".

But the bigger question goes back to the author. Can his text be treated in the same way as the photograph (or the film) ? Whatever, it seems the ability to write and re-write on a website has something to ask and answer about this.





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