The experience of writing and reading – by Emily Oldfield

I adore reading, which is in turn a catalyst for my writing, and I am eager to share my passion, yet it often appears that many people seem unable to appreciate reading for what it is, and prefer other forms of occupation.  Reading is often defined as a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning. This appears a highly structured activity, and what I believe can be wholly rewarding – the potential to assign print on a page to a reality within the extent of our own sense is amazing! When this is compared with other activities such as watching cartoons – in which visual stimulus is provided – I believe reading may appear somewhat threatening to those who are not regularly accustomed. There are those who assume that those who do not read are ‘lazy’ and ‘ill-educated’, but in this article, considering developed literary criticism, I aim to show that this may not necessarily be the case.

Considering the allusion to cartoons I think a major factor in my love of reading was due to my dad reading lyrical poems to be from an early age. My favourite was ‘From a Railway carriage’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, (the infamous ‘faster than fairies, faster than witches!’)  which holds the rhythm of an accelerating train. As a three year old child, I was fascinated, and even if I did not understand all the words, through this rhythmic craft I held an immediate sense of company.

It appears well-recognised that many people enjoy personal leisure activities that maintain one’s personal space and autonomy – for example taking a hot bath or watching a film, often viewed as an important part of relaxation, in contrast to the often confined working environment. It could also be seen that reading, especially of novels and poems, is an individual activity which maintains personal space. Yet, what can be considered as happening when we read? In the above given activities it is perhaps the case that the people involved think that what they think also, at the time, indeed  belongs to them– a part of their personal mental world, whilst satisfying the personal physical world also.

Hence, what appears to be a popular attribute of leisure is the preservation of autonomy – for example the independence of judgement. The mind could be considered an area to which personal autonomy is most significant – with the concept of ‘thought analysis’ or people ‘getting into’ our thoughts, appearing largely invasive and uncomfortable. I believe that reading especially may contain this discomfort, as allows for the ‘I’ we believe to be reading the poem or novel – subject to a fictional environment – to actually be the writers manipulation of ‘I’ – the writer has us under their thumb. In the case of ‘From a railway carriage’ and ‘The Listeners’ by Walter De La Mere, this seemed to me like a very fun experience, but I diverge.  It could be actually considered that as long as we read, we have submitted to replacement of our own ‘I’ with the writers ‘I’, and thence come under the power of another.

Hence what I believe to be my ‘relationship’ with books – there is someone there to engage and influence me. An example of this internally within a text I believe, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in which the unreliable narrator is discouraged from writing by her controlling husband and assigned to bed rest, suffering from what would now know be recognised as post-partum depression. However, the narrator defies her husband and continues to write when she can, in what appears to be a semi-epistolary format, but to herself. In what could be seen in the reading and re-reading of her own entries, as the short story progresses the narrator becomes more and more absorbed within herself and her insanity, as symbolised in the mocking ‘Yellow Wallpaper’.

This view is from the perspective of ‘interiority’ and ‘subjectivity’ is held by Georges Poulet in his work ‘Criticism and the Experience of Interiority’ published in 1966. I have always felt that my views on reading creating somewhat of a ‘separate self’, the self which experiences the fictional, to be somewhat obscure. However, considering Poulet’s approach, I feel I can now approach this area with a greater confidence. (As some may empathise with, the realisation that someone was thinking around the same lines is somewhat rectifying!)

Reading itself evidently requires confidence. Some may scoff ‘Oh, reading is easy – I have been doing it for years!’ – but this is an evident state of confidence in reading developed over time – all beginning from the initial challenge of the storybook, and still, into age, the words we fail to understand in themselves upon the page. This is a challenge both child and adult faces with potential skill. Poulet attributes the human ability to not only read but to facilitate this unknown language in its context to try and appropriate meaning as an ‘astonishing facility’, and I, ultimately agree. It can be easily judged, I recognise, that reading, to those who read novels regularly for example, become accustomed to reading as an almost automatic task. Yet it is actually the case that the role of ‘reader’ is not seemingly so passive, but involves the use a variety of reading strategies to assist with decoding (to translate symbols into sounds or visual representations of speech) and comprehension. Readers may use morpheme, semantic, syntax and context clues to identify the meanings of unknown words and in turn engage further with ‘this I who thinks in me’. Whilst the ‘I’ of the individual in reality may act with spontaneity and immerse themselves within lifestyle processes, the reader of ‘I’ appears somewhat deductive, calculating and stimulating the unconscious to mould meaning.

I believe this shows that writing and reading cannot only enrich our knowledge, but actually ourselves, and seemingly add an additional dimension to the individual. Hence I recap on my previous comment of reading appearing threatening to some, and in terms of that, this concept of expansion may appear invasive as thus raising the potential challenge of a ‘second self’. There may be those who are very happy with what they consider to be themselves – a single self – and hence may perceive a secondary self as an unfortunate ‘usurper’. However, I feel that I am insecure in myself and that the stimulation of a second self, able to minimalize emotional realities and instead immerse in those of a narrative I am reading, is empowering and refreshing.  Children’s books are an excellent example of this – allowing the reader to be immersed in the little house where ‘Matilda’ goes to visit her teacher, for example.

It is therefore that I now believe more strongly that reading is a highly personal and even intimate experience between reader and writer – which like a reciprocal relationship – should be maintained with respect, devotion and focus. Relationships are often difficult, and I believe that this article does assert the potential challenges of reading, but in considering a relationship, reading holds the capacity to reap much reward for both involved.

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