Social Reading

Book Cell, Matej Krén

I’ve never joined a book club. Churlish as it sounds coming from someone who just published a book about literature and design, the prospect of sharing the relationships I’ve made through the intimate medium of the page seems like a violation. To be clear, I’m not opposed to talking about books and the ideas they proffer. It’s just that the book-in-my-head has no need of a public autopsy — unless it’s my public autopsy. (Yes, I’m not only churlish, I’m also a bit of a hypocrite.)

Passing judgments on characters’ choices, plot directions, and alternative scenarios strikes me as disrespectful of the author. Such speculations reject the gift of literature as it is given. They refuse “the politics of the primary” (Steiner, Real Presences, 6). In other words, the immediacy of a close reading. This is the kind of attentiveness which allows us to respond directly to an author’s words, rather than talk around them. If, instead, we ruminate about whether the plot is feasible, or what might have been written, or what’s ‘behind’ the novel or poem at hand, we turn a blind eye to what is right there on the page. This kind of domesticated reading fragments and undermines the integral nature of reading — a composite of the order and tone of words on a page, the time, spaces, and beings those words evoke, and the images that they form inside us.

The book-in-my-head is a narrative in another form. It is a disorderly composite of recollections of what I’ve read, colored and perfumed by other experiences. This internalization, this possession of the book, accounts for my urge to safeguard the integrity of what and whom I envision. I don’t even mind if my suppositions are flawed; that’s what re-reading is for.

Reading may happen in silence but it isn’t solitary. There are the women who struggle with their respective confusions in Magda Szabo’s novels set in postwar Hungary; they manifest themselves to me in very specific ways, making direct appeals to my sympathies. Likewise, the protagonists of Anna Burn’s Milkman in Ireland and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in Poland, just two cite two new additions to the cast of characters (and places) that accompany me. They are animate enough for me to think of them as companions and co-sufferers with whom I’ve formed a kinship – even when that relationship is antagonistic, as it is with Cesar Aires’ gluttonous priest in “Acts of Charity.”  I suspect it is precisely because I recognize my own foibles and good intentions within the women-and-men-of-the-page that I am reluctant to subject them analysis by committee. Plus, I doubt any committee would want to have someone so committed to her narcissistic version of things.

Paradoxically, I still view reading as social. Not only is the experience of reading an experience of near visceral encounters with people-of-the-page, but those encounters also shape our interactions with people-off-the-page. Our conversations with the latter are enriched, even if only tacitly, by stories that have entered our consciousness – stories we have ingested, not merely digested. Only then can we share them because then they are our stories.

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