Reading in a Machine Era
Amid life’s varied demands in our time, things get left behind. Old practices and ways of life are pressed into finding new expression. It’s adapt or die. It’s evolution. No matter how seemingly sacred or fundamental to our humanity a thing might seem, time subjects and refines it all, grinding relentlessly, sifting the efforts of men. Nothing is spared, not even the quiet practice of reading.
Though today reading is foundational to our society and almost considered a fundamental part of our human development, it has not long enjoyed such ubiquitous participation. For most of history, most people could not read. The power of comprehending the written word has historically belonged to an elite few in philosophy, governance, religion, and the arts. Thus the spread of the written word--and with it knowledge--has meant the democratization of power: a movement, generally, away from elitism and towards the dignifying and empowerment of the common man. But even today many marginalized cultures of the world are far behind even the advances of Gutenberg, some remaining without alphabets or formal codification of any kind, still passing on their histories orally in stories and songs and old-fashioned conversation. And though these cultures may be exceptional, there existence demands we reckon ourselves with the fact that the history of general readership is still very, very young.
And being young and still alive, there is no need to spread alarm about the ways time and technology are forcing reading to adapt. It will. What has been true of the history of reading and what will come of it in future years is not worth my theorizing. I am, however, very interested in pausing, briefly, against time’s turning gears in effort to acknowledge that reading, particularly the reading of imaginative literature, has, it seems, done us some good--some very specific good--and can continue to do us good, especially as change rolls on.
In a book that wrestles with the flux of time itself, The Waves, Virginia Woolf alluded to “a world immune from change,” that is, to something that would hold against the pressure or “the waves” of time and the inexhaustible mystery of the human spirit. If there is such a paused, or at least slowed-down, world for us to live in now, it may be available in a place of words, of reading and writing.
The first good that reading does for us is that it can slow us down. We are modern people, and modern people are hurried people. The two are almost synonymous. But reading well and deeply is an antidote to our rushed tendencies. It forces us to reckon with the fact that going faster is a vapid pursuit, and that only in going slower and in directly wading through our regions of uncertainty does clarification come to us, like the dawn. Getting into a character or the mind of a poem takes that kind of investment, that kind of waiting and intention. And this is good because it reminds us that understanding people requires investment and patience and openness.
This way of reading always draws us towards some deeper communion with others and this world--even by way of dreaming of another. For most of its existence reading has been a communal act, akin to ritual (even the ritual itself in some cases), and only in recent centuries has it assumed a more solitary character, having taken the form of a more private rite. Yet despite the private nature of reading today, it remains true that we don’t read to feel more alone. We read, rather, in effort to find a way out of our solitude. We read in hope of finding some verification for our lives from somewhere outside of us--some voice or image to mirror and challenge our own.
This is the way, too, of most all practices of solitude. They feign escape but inevitably find their way towards communion. The modern man entertains the notion of getting out of town and off the grid and “unplugging” for a while, and he dreams of a purer, more natural existence in words like river, mountain, forest. Then he goes to them to find his place, to be resituated by things alive. But it’s not to escape, per se. It’s to discover a peace with such things: among rivers and on mountains and within forests millennia old. What begins in escape ends in return: an act of straining to hear the tune of an old hymn of the earth, splashing on smoothed-out granite or drifting softly through peeling cedars. There is no seeking after loneliness in any rite of solitude. There is only a deeper longing for being with things or people.
So it has been with reading, and so it can still be. In opening a book, alone though we most often are, we strain to hear another voice to tell us who we are and who we might become. I dare say reading can assume the character of poetry in the way Wallace Stevens describes, that is by moving with a “mind in the act of finding/what will suffice.” In reading well we listen and respond to this mind behind the words. We follow its path and trace its steps, as if in a dance. We work with it, not apart from it, and in doing so we become aware of ourselves and of both the harmony and dissonance of our two minds. Either way, it is alive and rich in the ways of communion, far from something solitary.
Attending to Form
The effects of attending to this written form, this dance as it were, are salient. Being drawn intently into the motions of a mind not our own engages us wholly, if we are awake and if we give ourselves to this movement, this dancing.
While taxing on our energies, reading draws us into the ancient art of listening and heeding another person. A remarkable thing about the act of reading is that the mind speaking first--that is, the writer--never listens. Listening is only the reader’s job, and he has at least two voices he must attend: the writer’s and his own. He has to hear both. He has to first hear the author rightly, otherwise his response is misdirected. Then, to the analogy, he has to hear his own voice in its own turn. If he gets ahead of the lead, or if he anticipates impatiently, his next step will be in the wrong direction, and the dance will cease to be intimate. It will become, rather, a jolting and disjointed spectacle, something disruptive, grating, even isolating. But if it’s a true step--if the author is heard aright and the reader yields and then responds in turn--the dance comes alive, communion ensues, and the reader glimpses both author and himself engaged in something lovely and intimate.
It’s not hard to see that this is an art on the verge of an evolution. Time and people and technology are at a crossroads when it comes to listening. The demand is to be quick about it all, to process more and to speak more, and the platforms for both are there. A change in our mind is at hand, and it is now reasonable to ask in our time: Do we hear each other? Are we even capable? Or are we simply waiting for our turn to speak?
Though it almost goes without saying, reading is a step in the right direction, whatever is coming. As time bears down, and as we are forced to adapt, and as we are led to fear that in a world of machines the voices we hear may not be human ones, or that the whispers are only our own, it is still possible to find a remedy, some quietude and intimacy, in the old technology of a book. If we strain against the grinding routines and the gears of time and put our ears to the pages and attend to the voices we hope to hear, reading once again may do us some good. It might be a help: a slowing reminder of a history that precedes us and of a future that will outlast us and of a dance still mid-stride calling to us on the perimeter looking in, feeling out the rhythm, uncertain of our steps.
Reading can give us that glimpse. But the steps are ours to take.