by Robert P. Waxler
What is it about reading that makes it significant? Does it really matter what we read and how we read? And what do we mean by “reading” anyway?
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 Changing Lives Through Literature 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.
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.