Reflections on reading

Published in Education in the Digital Era, March 2019

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. […] They are a way of being fully human.”- Susan Sontag

The multifaceted nature of literature encompasses an abundance of purposes when it comes to the act of reading, such as functioning as a vehicle of escapism, working as a tool to enhance self-awareness, setting in motion cultural and social change starting from individual transformation, inspiring metaphorical deaths and resurrections of selves, summoning childhood magic and nostalgia associated with books we grew up with and memories entangled with their reading, perceiving the human spirit as shaped through time within specific historical and cultural frameworks, as well as strengthening our connection with others by making us recognise ‘the other’ within us, and providing a mirror that we can use to face the world with empathy and acceptance as we fully acknowledge its realness and complexity.

Reading can be seen as a spiritual journey, since it inspires a form of awakening. Stories we read during our formative years, during an early stage in our lives that is of utmost significance memory-wise, those stories will potentially remain the most enchanting reading experiences, because they enter our mind at a time when we tend to simply absorb every evocative image, every symbol, indiscriminately, unassumingly, with naivety and curiosity, and when simple yet vivid memories are formed. Later, as we mature and acquire more knowledge- not exclusively literary, whilst we learn to be more discerning, selective, as well as developing critical thinking, we are encouraged to deeply reflect on the strings of words in front of our eyes- sometimes, however, at the expense of the child-like wonder and the child’s way of seeing, of disappearing, and truly living within a story.

While expressing her views on reading, Virginia Woolf emphasises that, whereas we should follow our instincts in reading rather than having someone else dictate the way in which we experience a literary piece, we should also avoid falling into the trap of projecting our pre-conceived ideas and judgements onto a piece of writing immediately, and instead, at first, decrease the volume of our critical voice in order to embrace the author’s voice and the creative process, to open our minds and let the thoughts of another flow into them. Afterwards, as cultivated readers, we can ponder on underlying themes and psychoanalytical symbolism, stylistic categorisations, meta-references, the larger aesthetic value of the work, character development, feminist interpretations and critiques, and the historical, socio-cultural, political or conceptual frameworks. As a Literature and Film graduate, I have found that temporarily tuning out certain aspects of this critical side that became a natural inclination in my reading is ideal if I wish to retain the pleasure of the act and to prevent disillusionment. Otherwise- and I have known Literature and Film students at university who faced such concerns- the enjoyment of a piece of writing or art in general might be diminished. When we let ourselves be fully engrossed by the words, something pure and beautiful happens: we disappear and live within a story, we allow ourselves to be bewitched by lyricism, to recognise the emotions evoked in a poem, to let them inspire us; we perceive and visualise the world conceived by another mind, unfolding within our own mind. That is when we can identify with a character, as well as finding traces of this character within ourselves, savouring every mental image, finding something interesting and revealing in every echo while devouring a good book. This way, we shift from clichés to something more intimate, from patterns of thinking to a unique taste of and insight into individual consciousness.

During literary studies at university, our way of reading pieces of literature is, indeed, interestingly shaped, to a certain degree, by the modules we opt for and their structure, particularly the recommended critical interpretations and analysis of the works in question or, more broadly, of literary movements, periods, and other divisions. Once you place everything in a cultural, social, or historical context, or consider the psychoanalytical dimensions of a text, or interpret narratives from a feminist point of view, it can influence your process of experiencing other works and how you delve into them. This aspect is also facilitated by a tendency towards syntopical or comparative reading, which is recommended within an academic context- particularly in analysing critical theory books and essays- and rightfully so, since it is a useful tool for finding your own voice, forming your own opinions, gaining perspective, and developing critical thinking skills which are so essential in various areas of life. As a result, while reading prose fiction for instance, our minds may involuntarily jump to underlying commentaries and themes, paying more attention to connotations of nuances and how they fall into a wider sociocultural, ideological, or psychological framework. This may seem like a double-edged sword because it appears to be in contrast to the previous idea of experiencing a written story viscerally, intimately. However, as previously mentioned, the mind can be trained to read differently for pleasure, inspiration, or educational purposes and everyone can shift between different methods of reading.

Placing a literary piece into the complex puzzle of history, can be particularly revealing and useful, for instance, when we read literature associated with silenced voices and with otherness: such literary works give us the chance to get an insight into the psyche of figures whose lives seem so distinct from ours and explore uncharted mental territories, an inner journey which will also prove to be self-revealing, whilst at the same time requiring transcendence. Reading can, indeed, often initiate us into a ritual of self-transcending. Language mediates our connection with our own selves as much as it mediates our connection with the world around us. Reading can be viewed as a process of merging contrasts: between temporality and atemporality, the tangible and the incorporeal, presence and absence, closeness and remoteness, self and other, the intimate and the universal, the evanescent and the eternal, a grasped world and an elusive one.

l’appel du vide

Melissa. solipsist. architect. undertaker of her soul parts.
She was lying on the wooden bench covered by soft pillows and by the still cold, refreshing blanket. The view from the balcony was pure bliss – her secret refuge amid that demanding, unnecessarily and excessively cheerful world. She wanted to immortalise that private earthly heaven, as she knew those moments were as relieving as escaping from a cage after dreadful weeks of physical abuse and food deprivation. She could feel it in her bones. They felt light, surreal. Her body felt light, as if she was transcending from matter to spirit.
While taking a picture of the scenery, she noticed it looked like a framed painting. The mirror on the wooden wall to her left reflected that characteristic intense look on her face, the one that always made people order her to “cheer up” when she passed them by on the boulevard.
“If only I could paint.” she says, sighing. She could visualise a wonderful painting within a painting, inspired by this place. The flowers from the pot on the sill would look as if they are growing on the hill and as if they are trying to reach out to the viewer. Trying to step outside the picture frame… for what purpose? To defy the idea that art is lifeless or separated from life or perhaps, the idea that nature can be captured in a painting.
The painting was so gracefully and ethereally alive: The grass on the hill was dancing in the tender breeze. The vivid green leaves from the closest tree were touching in such a way that they seemed to be clapping at the miraculous spectacle of nature. Upon looking deeper into the picture, her eyes lingered on the graveyard at the top of the mountain. For a brief moment, a white butterfly drunkenly crushed into the wooden frame, but was not able to step outside the frame. It was as if it was stopped by an invisible barrier.
The solemn picture of the graves was not sad at all. It did not inspire death, but the cycle of life. The painting was breathing and radiantly emanating life and love. Birds were flying above and around the tombstones while the sun filled the funerary inscriptions with light. The clear white clouds resembled a beautiful, noble, yet unrecognisable creature that was flying above the happy, contentedly submissive trees – like a celestial king protecting his realm.
It all started with her eyes: Their glow disappeared completely, leaving her face blank and indistinct. She blinked once – nothing happened. She smiled for a few seconds, thinking that, perhaps, her sudden worry was silly and unnecessary. Then she frowned and blinked twice. Nothing: the landscape was still full of vitality and vividness. Still suspicious and somewhat confused, she closed her eyes for 5 seconds this time. When she opened them, she was looking down – her gaze fixed somewhere under the ‘painting’, where she saw seven red petals that had fallen from the potted flowers. She looked up in panic and noticed that the flowers which were stepping out of the frame and crawling down the white wooden wall were dying. They could not survive the impact with the real world for long.
Her heart was racing as she looked up higher, at the rest of the painting. Her face became pale, corpse-like, when her eyes reached the threatening shape of the clouds – which no longer formed a fairytale creature, but a dark, monstrous, deadly fiend from the realm of Hades. The trees were no longer dancing or worshiping the king of the world: rather, they were bending in disgust, wailing and playing their symphony of decay while the branches were brutally slapped by the wind. The leaves no longer clapping, but trembling in terror – at which point Melissa realised her body had been shaking continuously.
Staring at the distant graveyard, she knew that the inscriptions were no longer illuminated by the healing rays of light; they were instead covered by blood and cobwebs. Soon she felt the horrifying stench of decayed matter infecting the air. Her limbs felt heavy, her body was now weary. A broken spirit trapped between worlds, l’appel du vide invaded her fragmented being like a plague. With a tear in the corner of each eye, she climbs the sill and makes her first and last step into the frame.