The Danger of Reading

Let me apologize for quoting myself, but at least it has the advantage of being more dramatic. They sum up pretty accurately my experience of reading again, the first time in months. Before I read, I wrote:

America, educate yourself about book safety and observe the following precautions: Do not overestimate yourself. Know what you’re looking for. Take frequent breaks to reorient yourself. Maintain a safe separation of identity at all times.

And afterwards:

The following is a true story: I just tried reading Keats again for the first time in months. Everything seemed fine, but then I blacked out and woke up a disoriented mess, with no conception of where or who I was or what I was doing. And then I was like, “Good lord — I had forgotten about book safety. Does no one else know of this? I must warn then.” But, somehow, it was too late.

So I’m trying to be funny but the experience is quite accurate. It’s dangerous to read without knowing what you’re looking for — this is opposite of the usual advice that people give about reading with an open mind. I think PBS encourages to immerse oneself in a book. But there is too much to think about in a book and if one is not careful one quickly becomes overwhelmed. The trope of making a sudden and horrifying discovery, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is not just a throwaway joke — no one really tells you about what a book does to your memory, people still regard books as safe rather than the effort of pod people trying to take over your mind. (This is not the specific experience of the book, this is rather a kind of mnemonic overload.)

Or rather, the sense of disorientation comes from not being able to absorb it all. Books were written for a contemporary audience that is probably more in tune with this sort of thing. Contemporary audiences can read safely, perhaps, because there is actually very little for them to absorb, new. It would wrong to believe that the only way to understand a book would be to absorb it in the way that a contemporary does.

Well, there is an interesting introductory passage at the beginning of one of Keats’s long poems, Endymion, that struck me. What struck me was that Keats was writing to “an equal”. There are two introductions, an earlier one and a later one, the later one is the more apologetic, it asks the reader to judge the intention, to judge the work as an effort rather than as a completed thing. This actually goes well with an argument I had earlier today: I said, and this is crude — this was in the locker room, after a pickup hockey game — that “my job in a discourse was not to penetrate you and to inseminate you with my ideas!” This was after someone told me that they weren’t “convinced” of my theories — and so I, feeling pretty irate at that point, well, called them a pussy. Rather than merely being “receptive”, then, it was the task of the person to be an equal, to judge intentions. (If this sound misogynistic let’s remember that the whole argument of feminism is that women aren’t women, since the very definition of women — the second appearance of “women” in this sentence — has been corrupted.)

That was what struck me about the Keats introduction too — it assumes a reader that was an “equal”, so that, despite the heavy emphasis on imagery in the poem, the poem was addressed to someone who would not be “penetrated” or “inseminated” by these images, but rather could recognize the intention there, that is, was more aware of the gaps or inadequacies of the poem! So, although offering an apology in the forward could be seen as banal or even insincere, I think that it can almost be viewed as being similar to the comical but not sarcastic warning I gave in the beginning, even though the former seems to ask for more patience while the latter seems to ask for less — they both emphasize the role of the reader as an independent, equal participant. Yet this is a very odd thing for Keats, the writer of lyrical poetry loaded with imagery, to request from a reader — it’s almost as if he were writing to two audiences.

There is no experience of the text, or rather, the experience is not the essence of the text. We are here talking about, precisely, avoiding an experience, avoiding getting lost in the text. I complained earlier to the effect that no one had warned me about the dangers there — but these dangers is merely a mnemonic overload. One can’t read a book and continue on with what one is doing, the book strips me of my identity or my orientation. People view this as a form of “learning”, but doesn’t learning imply aid rather than violence? The horrifying realization about the book was that it is destructive no matter who one is, or that it’s force is purely destructive. The only way the book isn’t destructive is if one had nothing constructed in the first place.

The question is, what is the specificity of the book?

… are we talking about the nature of the overall “experience”?

… are we talking about the existence of something within that event, like some figure there?

… and if contemporary audiences can understand the book — and cf, the difference between reflective and pragmatic understanding — do they come under some spell? Is there something we can say about that spell, that we can say, standing on the edge?

… and how does this relate to {negativity, substrate, culture}, to our identity?

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