I love the whole and vast literary field and spend a great deal of time reading – and NO, it is not the same as saying I love to read from every particle of the field and YES, I do think that some of it is real BS and could be chucked in the bin without hesitation. It has come to my attention that thinking and debating literature, its implications and techniques (if not with company, then with myself), is a hazard of studying the darned matter daily. It can cause what I understand from some people damages to the so-called ‘lystlæsning’ strategy (passionate or zestful reading) – as many often like to differentiate between reading for fun and reading for learning. Although I don’t adhere to this segregation of reading, because on the one hand I find reading theoretical works just as exhilarating and mind-forgetting as reading fictional works, and on the other hand, I need to deepen my knowledge of a work that goes beyond the singular work to feel like I gain something worth having, I sometimes tend to emphasize the value of technical reading more (if I absolutely must segregate), so that I forget to or don’t allow my brain not to work as hard at pressing some theory or school of thought down on a work.
It must stem from being brought up within institutionalized reading and “learning” to decode symbols, signs and meanings – I think we have all at one point in our life, knowingly or unknowingly been set to use Propp’s structured formula on fairy tales or Greimas’ actantial model, you know, the ones with the role casting: the adversary, the helper, the hero and so forth and so on, with the sole intent to prove that fairy tales are codes to social mannerism to be interpreted in a specific manner and thus recasting ourselves in specific roles in society either as proponents or opponents of known rules – meaning, however, that the interpretation is not necessarily a fixed structure with one goal to all stories. I guess it can be very comforting to claim that there is a formula to literature – so everyone can participate at every juncture. But studies show that the choices readers make (also the critical ones) are not always in favor of the intention of the formula.
Reading using taught strategies can be a great way of reading a fairy tale, no doubt about it, because it can expose inner workings of fairy tales and give your brain a mental workout – and it is often emphasized that the tools you use when learning to read say for instance fairy tales in school can be implemented on other structures in life.
But just as any other process, it can be too adamant and rigid, and cause you to lose sight of other just as important aspects of literature. Sometimes fairy tales are just good because they are fairy tales, because they come with an excess of cultural and personal baggage, connotations treading back to childhood and diffuse hints of recognition that sometimes are just as well savored affectively. And if literature is just a code to be cracked with schemes, counting alliterations and making mental notes of how many times the author uses the word asphyxiate then literature and reader have lost and the first might just as well be classified under the care instructions section. When we are taught to treat literature as code the general reader gives up if it gets to hard (often because he or she don’t know the background, setting, reason/style of writing etc.), we don’t trust our own way of reading (which can be at odds with, if not completely opposite, what we are taught), we strike out and disappoint (each other and ourselves).
We don’t always notice it but we implement an array of different reading strategies in daily life, and do so without thinking that we’ve learned it somewhere. But when the specific term “literature” is mentioned, say someone tries to explain or discuss a reading, rather than opening ourselves up to different perspectives and contesting each other we become obsessed with sticking to the right formula or saying the magic words. Furthermore, when we say we read literature, we often think of, and glorify, the type of reading that happens as a solitary event when we sit in a chair with a cup of hot beverage by our side, minimal body movement, and eyeballs loosely skimming page after page in a paper book filled with specifically fonted lettering, while our brain zooms in and out of the page and links it to the mind, which in return projects mental images that almost always seem to create immense disappointment when illusions are burst at the screen version.
I have come across many (non)theorists that can’t help but throw in arabesque explanations entailing the wonders of this type of reading and thus hierarchize the relationship between author, work and reader. And in these cases the reader often becomes a passive vessel to the words of the writer of a given work: a sort of attitude where the reader is being infused with the spirit of the previous. But in other cases I have also noticed that the institutionalized reader is being challenged, both from within academia, and outside it: some theories bank on the modern human being so fragmented and isolated that it does not trust anyone but itself – and therefore reading cannot or must not be done as others do it. The downside of that is that the human race is also characterized as a social being and so withholding the need to share experiences and being validated or contested by others can seem counter-intuitive if not downright damaging to our mental health – “no man is an island”, if you catch my drift. But the upside, when we count involving others in the process, is that an array of readings, previously found to be insufficient or wrong have gained some status in a previously closed (dare I say, uptight) arena.
I’m not sure just what I was aiming at with this, if I was aiming at anything, I just like reading and discussing literature and other people’s’ readings.
Last week me and my mother (in town after attending Frankfurter Buchmesse, I’m so jealous) went to the exhibition at Bakkehusmuseet on reading by poet Morten Søndergaard called “Bakkehusalfabetet”.
The exhibit is set in and around the permanent exhibition in the house of Kamma and Knud Lyne Rahbek – two leading figures in 18th century society life in Denmark – now transformed into a museum and writer’s domicile. 28 installations, one for every letter in the Danish alphabet, are scattered around the house, in between cases containing items such as Oehlenschläger’s robe and paintings of Ludvig Holberg. The exhibition tries to convey different takes on how and why one reads, and importantly also what the process of reading does to someone. Accompanying every letter is a text that you can read in the booklet you loan at the entry. Like ‘R’ for “Ro; ro, rod, ord, bord” (in English, and unfortunately, but inevitably, not so similar, “quiet or row, mess, word, table”). The physical setting of the installation is an old wooden and lacquered desk like the one you might picture a clerk sitting at, upon which an iPad lays showing an array of pictures of Søndergaard’s many “desks”/writing places over the last 20 or so years. Combined with this is the mental process of, as explained in the text, the array of words he has chosen to describe his feelings of the settings of writing a text that will be read.
By the letter ‘I’, Søndergaard has taken a famous poem by Lewis Carroll in “Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there”, namely the “Jabberwocky” and stuck it up on the bathroom wall. Jabberwocky is what some might call nonsense-poetry, however I would prefer to avoid the connotations of that word, simply because it does not do justice to the type of entry allowed the reader, just because it isn’t normative. The installation does however play on the same murkiness and seemingly impenetrable nature of the poem with which it presents itself on paper by being set backwards up on the wall, so that the easiest way you can read it is if you look at it through the mirror, or, ta-dah, looking-glass. The question soon arises; does reading the “Jabberwocky” become clearer if I read it through the looking-glass, or does reading like this feel displaced or diverted? Is reading this already-hard-to-comprehend poem impeded twice over, or am I all of a sudden aware of the poem’s crazy route?
Although it could be said that some of the installations took its subjects a bit to literally (like the two examples here) it doesn’t fail in examining reading at different point of views, perhaps in different life stages or reading as seen by different people. There is one of the installations where Søndergaard has taken a row of photos of book pages (a statement in itself that could lead to a long analysis), framed them with an archive card underneath explaining the books’ origin, page count, publishing date and remarks on the annotation or scribbled marks that fall out of the books default setting on that particular page. The images of the book-in-frame, with all of its implied and explicit meanings, becomes a fragment of a whole, and in the framed picture it is merely a corner of a books’ page, letting it stand as a documented piece, not of itself, but how it is received and implicates the reader. On one amusing photo someone has taken it upon him- or herself to correct a the grammar, crossing out the black, printed word “med” (with) and replacing it in blue ink with “af” (of). If you look at the photo and read the fragmented, but nonetheless adequate, sentence you will understand the duplicity in the action and the meaning.
The installations are on display until January 8th, and in case I did not make it clear: yes, I think they are worth a visit.
P.S. Did I mention I got a cool poster too?