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Why Readings?
By Robert Waxler (profile)

What is it about reading that makes it significant? Why do we claim its central importance for the CLTL program? And what do we mean by "reading" anyway?

Does it really matter what we read and how we read?

I start with Alberto Manguel's description in his A History of Reading of the first time he was able to read words by himself, without another reader helping him along.

"And yet, all of a sudden, I knew what they were; I heard them in my head, they metamorphosed from black lines and white spaces into a solid, sonorous, meaningful reality. I had done all this by myself. No one had performed the magic for me. I and the shapes were alone together, revealing ourselves in a silently respectful dialogue. Since I could turn bare lines into living reality, I was all-powerful. I could read."

"I heard them in my head," Manguel says, as he magically transforms the outside into the inside, the black lines and white spaces into meaning, mastering the shadows and shapes calling to him, entering into a dialogue, a conversation with words given to him as gifts by another.

Yes, that is reading as I understand it, the beginning of a social contract, as Manguel explains, a covenant between the self and the world. Words on a page are gifts creating a communal threshold, inviting us to participate in an ongoing conversation set in motion before we arrived, taking us to our future, tempting us with revelation about the world and our relationship to it. Through reading, Manguel suggests, we glimpse what and where we are.

It is not quite true to say that we are what we read, but reading is always a social process, even when we read alone. It is an activity allowing us to find ourselves through a common language, a set of symbols set before us by other human beings. When we read, we bring ourselves, our language, our voice to the black marks and white spaces on the page, wrestle meaning from them, and recontextualize ourselves in relation to them.

This is why reading is not mere entertainment, at least not the kind of "deep reading" we have in mind. And this is why we celebrate literature - stories, novels, poems, plays - in our CLTL programs. As the ancient poets insisted, literature can delight us and teach us; literature is not mere entertainment because it demands through its language both the exercise of our body and our mind.

Reading is strenuous when done well. It is an experience taking us out of conventional time and fettered space, bringing us to a new place, free from the ruins of an uninspired and flat existence. As we read, we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others. Literature, more than other forms of writing, has this power.

We read stories, and we create them as we read, making a home for ourselves as we join the conversation. As Mark Turner puts it in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language: "Knowing how to inhabit stories is the essential requirement of mature life." Through reading, we break free from our single lives, as Turner suggests, from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence. We emerge from single vision into the complexity of a multifaceted human experience.

Deep reading is not an easy and secure activity. It can be dangerous, always ongoing, never finished - like thinking, like the beat of the human heart. As the plot unfolds, characters come alive, draw us in, read us as we read them.

Santiago, the old man in Ernest Hemingway's story of fishing in the deep water off of Cuba; Atticus Finch, the idealistic lawyer in Harper Lee's tale of justice in the deep depression of segregated Alabama; Wolf Larsen, the Darwinian captain in Jack London's sea story of survival in the deep abyss of ocean consciousness: who are they now? Magical presences, all of them, whispering to each reader about endurance and courage, telling each of us something about our frailty and heroism as mortal human beings.

"I was walking through the streets of the city the other night," a student in my CLTL class told me once. It could have been any city, any street, any of us. "And I was thinking about Santiago," he continued. "I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I've been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn't caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn't give up. So I didn't make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him."

Black marks and white spaces on the page transformed. A reader saved by his own story told through the story of another. Two voices, two stories, two lives mediated through language, the common ground, the threshold connecting us to the community, inviting us to choose a story, create our own tale amidst the stories already there.

We imagine what we read. This too is important, marking a significant difference between reading a text and watching visual images dance across a screen. The richly textured language of good literature, filled with ambiguity, always opens itself to the reader, calls to us, encourages interpretation, and demands that we participate in the making of its ongoing meaning. Deep reading evokes our voice, insists on the work of our entire body and mind. By contrast, the visual images of a screen culture flatten us out, as Sven Birkerts has well argued, imprison us in the sensation of the speeding moment, leave no room for us to find our voice or discover a home. As one CLTL student put it: "Reading books has at least released me from the endless boredom of watching television."

The process of "deep reading," as I am trying to describe it here, is a particularly human act with a complex language system at its core. As humans, we are the symbol-making animal, and it is precisely that ability that defines our unique human identity and allows us to confer meaning on our experience. It is what makes literature the most important tool we have today to keep our human identity and purpose.

In an interesting book, The Talking Cure, Susan Vaughan argues that recent findings in neurobiology and cognitive science give biological weight to Freud's psychological ideas: psychotherapy works at the cellular level. I want to suggest that "deep reading" in our CLTL program performs much the same function. As Vaughan might put it: Through the powerful emotional experience of our relationship with good literature, we recognize the main patterns of our life and remake our views of ourselves and others in relationships. Reading, like psychotherapy, becomes a habit - and that habit can help change lives, even reshape brain cell patterns.

That's part of the magic that deep reading promises.


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