Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do Not Disturb

I just read an excellent interview with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Pat Strachan in the Poets & Writers March/April issue. (You can read the interview online here.) In the interview, Ms. Strachan was asked what she thought about the state of books in this country. Here is her response:

“[I] certainly don’t think books are going to go away. The object itself it too essential. The idea of having your privacy is too wonderful. A book signals to other people to stay away. I’m in my private zone right now. I think that’s why so many women who are over-stressed read.”

I found this answer fascinating, for I’ve never associated reading with the idea of privacy, and I think it’s spot-on. We are all familiar with the idea of reading as escape—escape from problems and stress, escape from the dullness of everyday life, escape from the limits our location in time and space. We know what we are escaping from when we read—yet what, exactly, are we escaping to?

I think Ms. Strachan nailed it—we are seeking space to be with ourselves, to examine and expand the range of our thoughts without the danger of interference or interruption. In a true sense, reading is a conversation with ourselves, a conversation mediated through the voice and words of the author but one whose ultimate goal is self-knowledge.

Okay, you’re thinking, here she goes waxing philosophical on us again. [s] But think about it. Comprehending the words the author set on the page in a specific arrangement is exciting in itself, yet it is our engagement with these words and ideas they express that is the truly exhilarating part. What do we think about what the author says? How do these words make us feel? Does our reaction to them teach us something new about ourselves? Do we alter our perception of the world as a result of encountering them? As we read, we are engaged—privately—in such a dialectic, even if we never realize it on a conscious level.

I think this might be one reason why it is often so difficult to explain to someone else why we love a certain book. The experience of reading a book that touches us to the core is an intensely private affair, an experience that can be next to impossible to put into words someone else will understand. We usually resort to saying, “Read it and see for yourself.”

It’s interesting from a historical point of view how reading has become such a private activity in the modern world, for it wasn’t always so. In the days of limited literacy, reading was usually a public affair—a teacher or priest or master would read aloud to the women, children, servants. Instead of an open book being a sign for people to stay away, it was an invitation to gather, to join together on a journey into the new. It is interesting to consider prohibitions against women reading (and writing—more on that in another post) in light of the inherent danger of being alone with one’s thoughts, of watching them change and follow new paths. From authority’s point of view, it is far safer for minors to be read to, so the reader can direct and guide their thoughts into safe, controllable channels.

Any thoughts?


Sheramy said...

Classicists actually debate about when the idea of writing for silent reading was "invented" in antiquity--perhaps as early as the 4th c BC in Greece.
But even then, the literacy rate was low.

This post makes me think of all those wonderful Impressionist paintings by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Merisot of women reading. Those ladies truly look as if they're absorbed in another world. It's fascinating to me that only certain, special books truly have the kind of effect you mention--you remember them for years as being truly life-altering--whereas others you read, you enjoy for the time, then you forget.

Julianne Douglas said...


From what I understand, during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, reading was so linked to aurality that even when individuals read to themselves, they did just that--moved their lips and pronounced the words sotte voce. I'm not sure when this changed.

About paintings of readers--who painted the one of the girl in a yellow dress, in profile, reading from a small book held in one hand? That is one of my favorite pictures. I remember copying it back in my studio art days, but of course don't remember the artist now.

Sheramy said...

Hi Julianne--That one was by Fragonard. I like it too!!

That's interesting about reading aloud to oneself during the MA/Ren period. I didn't know that!

Catherine Delors said...

Think also of the custom for many high-ranking women to have "readers" who read aloud to them. Madame Campan, Marie-Antoinette First Chambermaid, began her career at Court as such a reader (to the daughters of Louis XV.)
And in "Farewell, My Queen" (fiction) the narrator is a "reader" to Marie-Antoinette. She picks what the Queen is going to hear. It's the absolute reverse of privacy: the reading is done aloud, and you don't even get to choose the books... That would have driven me out of my mind, but Marie-Antoinette wasn't into books and in Chantal Thomas's novel she doesn't seem to mind a bit.

Julianne Douglas said...


How interesting! I've never heard of an official "reader." The older version of Books-on-Tape, I guess! {s} I'll have to check out Thomas's novel. Thanks!