Do You Read? Really Read?

I read a lot! I always have. I read the few English “classics” in my mother’s library well before my teens. They were just there on the shelves and I read them again and again. Which brings me to my point here. I say I read a lot. That’s not a measure of volume or number of books, although I learned to speed-read during my academic years. Reading fast for information  is not what I consider “reading”. Some books have become my favourites, my friends, and like good friends, they can deliver surprises during each visit. And the memory of each visit remains strong. Here is a short list of remembered friends from childhood:

  • Snowflake, The Snow Goose and The Small Miracle, all by Paul Gallico;
  • Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson;
  • Any Superman comic;
  • The Phantom;
  • Any Mad Magazine (which can still draw forth that 9 year old cackle of delight as the adult world gets a humorous twist. I still remember the spoof of StarTrek where, after using the Transporter, The Away Team notices something went wrong with the reconfigurer: “My face suddenly wants to sit down,” says the normally well-controlled Captain Kirk).

Children so easily surrender their separateness to enter alien imaginal, real  worlds with abandon. They seem to return to their separate selves unharmed, and in fact mostly enriched by their encounters with other, equally real worlds. 

How did we lose this wonderful capacity given us (asked rhetorically)? We mostly do so at some point in our “development”  as we begin to engage a modern world that worries incessantly about nihilism, separateness, anxiety, disenchantment, how to overcome the gap, the split—between us and the world—you know how it goes! When all along we have this beautiful capacity, given us at birth, which is rooted in our natural connectivity or interpenetration with the other, and so leads us easily and fearlessly to enter strange worlds via another ’s words. To lose this capacity is to lose the capacity to read, i.e. really read, like a child reads. 

So I was startled today to find three passages from three sober adults, well-practised in the art of reading, offering a way back to really reading. One is a philosopher, another is a Jungian Analyst well-versed in Continental philosophy and the third is a poet.

Richard Polt wrote a small essay recently on the art and complexity of translation. He puts into words what a child does naturally. I have adapted his list of human capacities needed for any translation, applying them to the art of reading itself:

  • We have to be able to displace ourselves into the language of a different period of history and/or topography; 
  • We have to juxtapose modern English words, with their particular connotations, to words with their historical connotations, and judge the distance between them. Then, let go of that distance, entering the historical connotations fully;
  • We have to envision a historical period or world other than our own; 
  • We have to inhabit the conceptual world of the author;
  • We have to recreate the experiences of the author;
  • We have to consider whether the texts let the phenomena emerge in deep and genuine ways (the test? “I can’t put the book down!”) 

A child has no difficulty with any of these capacities. In losing touch with them we must rely on philosophers, poets, or psychologists to point the way back for us. Here  now is psychologist Wolfgang Giegerich speaking:

In my free reading times, I only read books I didn’t understand. Why would I worry with texts that I already understand at first sight? What they could bring me would be so close to where I already am that it would hardly be worth spending my time with those readings. But when I read those difficult books, I host within the “not understood” and live with it, I am pregnant for it, often for many years, until perhaps, after a long time, its meaning opens itself to me by its own agreement. (Interview)

Finally, Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet: 

I would like to beg you… to be patient with everything that is not yet solved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were closed quarters or books written in a foreign language… Long live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, gradually, without even warning, live your own way in the answers. 

The fact these insightful words must be said at all points to the terrible loss we live when we disconnect from those given capacities. The author who connected me again deeply to these capacities in consciousness (I never really lost them, which fact made my life in our modern culture quite difficult) is Owen Barfield whose disciplined historical imagination opened up the connection between history, words and consciousness for me. His book Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning still speaks to me after many readings. For example he studies the historical usage of the word, “ruins”, independently following Polt’s guidelines above, and releases for us the amazing conclusion that, as the usage of the word moved historically from a fluidic meaning to a static one, so did our consciousness/world move from a fluidic one to our current materialistic static world.

With all this expert guidance about how to “overcome the gap” between consciousness and world, there remains what could be an insurmountable problem for most adults today. Can you become that innocent 9-year-old again! I know I can. Somehow he remains with me even now at 71 years old. I can easily watch another episode of StarTrek and I wait in anticipation as the Away Team approaches the dreaded Transporter Room. Perhaps something will go wrong again…. 

I secretly hope something will go wrong. I’d like to see Kirk’s face try to sit down while his arse argues its way out of the dilemma with the unflappable Spock….