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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Act of Reading

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The act of reading has to be one of the most uncomfortable activities devised in the name of leisure. Consider what is asked of the reader, when presented with a book. Here we have a device that dictates its own position with absolute authority. It is to be held not more than fifty centimetres from the face, else it will truculently dissolve its meanings to an inky smudge. The arms must therefore lock themselves at right angles to the body, neither moving forwards nor wavering, lest the print give up its contract with the eyes that are desperately trained on a sliver of word at a time.

Of course, one can rest the book at a table, or upon a desk, in which case all manner of props come into play, all with the sole purpose of keeping this object static. For it will insist on moving. Should you dare turn your back for an instant, pages will spontaneously leaf themselves backwards. Thus are pens, scraps of paper, food, tissues all recruited to mark the spot, such that the book over time becomes marked with an indelible debris of tomato ketchup, tea stains, snot. If you do keep attention for long enough, though, the book will become restless, transferring its weight from its right half to its left, necessitating subtle shifts in whatever tower - usually constructed from other books - you had devised to prop it at a forty-five degree angle.

Worst, though, is the trial of reading in bed. One's vision of the bedtime reader is the hairnetted housewife, herself propped by mounds of downy pillows, her dog-eared romantic novel supported by a mound of goose-feather duvet. Here she half-lies, half-sits, in perfect readerly comfort, until her husband's foot is heard on the bottom stair, from which point a scurry of activity ensures that, by the time he reaches the top, lights are off, she has been asleep for hours, and it is not only the novel's romance that has been tidily closed for this evening. But this warm vision of domestic ritual is impossible to enact in any house other than the snug double-glazed mansions of middle England. Dare to live (as does this reader) in a damp, stone cottage, for example, and night brings with it a tyranny of cold, that taunts the innocent reader with a Catch-22. For in this environment, one must choose whether to sacrifice the body to the mind, or vice versa. If one chooses to snuggle deep into the blankets and preserve the body's warmth, the arms alone can be allowed to protrude, but must do so vertically, holding the book directly above the peeking head; arms thus soon tire, and the book is cast in shadow from the anglepoise above. The alternative is to turn to the side, contorting the spine and using creased elbows as support for the rapidly leadening neck. Finally, one can satisfy the body's craving for warmth, and simply sleep, leaving the book dead on the bedside table. It is wrong to suppose that intellectuals are dedicated to the life of mind rather than body; witness the goose bumps, the back ache, the dry eye, all sustained in refusing dreams in favour of the imagination invested within this small cuboid.

Of course, all these exertions and stresses are worth it, for the worlds to which the good novel will remove the reader can dull the ache of limbs better than any pharmaceutical. The keen reader lives for those moments of total immersion, when he or she forgets that this physical world exists at all. But such moments are made more ideal by the sudden discovery - the sudden happening upon - a reading position of infinite comfort which, having been found, allows the activity to be sustained for hours. Such positions are not signposted; they are not marked in a library or known in the ergonomics of a favourite chair. They are hidden, like secrets, around the everyday house. They come upon one who, having stood to put the kettle on, finds himself standing at the kitchen window with the light cast just perfectly on the page. They are lurking on the bottom step of the stair, when one meant to go and fetch something but has suddenly thought to sit and reopen the book which distracted him from the job in the first place. There is one on that particularly mossy patch in the garden, which, when hit by the warming sun at the right moment of the day, accommodates your posterior like a King's silk cushion.

And there! There is one in Peter Vilhelm's masterful painting "Girl Reading in an Interior." She is leaning against the sharp edge of a hard-looking chair reading an open book, or perhaps a thick letter. It should be uncomfortable, but is instead the picture of comfort happened upon fortuitously. Diagonally from upper left to the floor in the centre, is cast a sunbeam. From right to left, her weight is pressed on a delicate outstretched leg, and she has found herself as featherweight as the cast of incorporeal light that her stance mirrors. She did not mean to be here. She had been en route from the imagined front of the picture - the position of the viewer - through that closed door on the left, through which surely awaited some vital task or arduous chore. But something diverted her, and she found herself suddenly in this unfurnished, anonymous corridor - far removed from her designated "reading" chair in the stately drawing room of this comfortable suburban house - totally exorcised from her body, living completely through those other consciousnesses nested deep in the words on the page.

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Posted by Alistair at 12:27 pm

2 Comments:

Blogger Ellie said...

I must say, I have never thought of reading as such a painful activity! However reading your post, I do remember all my aches of the particular position I'm in if I read too late into the night. Never the less, reading is an amazing experience that no other has surpassed in quite the same way, as it compells the reader to forget their sense of place (physically and socially) and emerse themselves entirely into other lives or worlds, (and if the book is good enough) ignoring any aches, pains and distractions of the world the reader is physically in. Possibly because of the gaining of another space and place through the novel, readers never feel like they're missing anything- wheras in a cinema you have distractions of the people you take along and the food you have to eat throughout it and it will never give anyone quite the same feeling that a novel can.

3:28 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Of course, reading is not really as bad as I made out, in a post that was just a bit of playfulness on my part. And the benefits of reading in terms of the imagination far outweigh any physical drawbacks.

And it is, of course, odd that if the book is such a tyrannical device that makes such demands on the body, no one has bettered the codex in centuries (even Amazon, with their e-book reader).

7:31 am  

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