At a loss for words

7th November 1997 at 00:00
We live in the age of electronic media. But, Valentine Cunningham argues, it is only through reading books that we can truly understand ourselves

Reading has never stood still for very long. The object of reading changes - from scroll to codex, manuscript to print, hand-print to mass-print, from book to IT screen. And with these technological revolutions the implied reader necessarily changes. New styles of architecture - as WH Auden once put it - a change of heart. A calmly accepting relativism seems indicated. And, after all, whingeing, like Luddism, gets you nowhere.

But as the print media get more and more overtaken by their electronic rivals, and the reader on his or her own with a book becomes more and more unusual, it does perhaps behove us (as we used to say before our spell-checks wondered whether we'd got the word right) to at least face the consequences, not just for the business of transmitting information, nor even just for education and its assumptions and methods, but more largely for ourselves - for what we have to call western selfhood.

What's very arresting about old stories, especially canonical texts from the great classic period of modern reading - roughly, from the invention of the modern novel until modernism started to unpick the mode - is the way they keep offering scenes of reading, engagements with books such as the classic ones they have themselves become. Such as Robinson Crusoe finding salvation in one of the three Bibles he took off his wrecked ship. Or Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Book 4, Chapter 3, "A Voice from the Past", picking up, in the midst of her family's impoverishment, an "old, clumsy" copy of Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ from the slush-pile of tomes her good friend Bob has brought for her because they're "cram-full o'print", and having her life transformed as she follows the advice about self-negation in passages marked in faded ink by some long-dead predecessor. Or little Jane Eyre in the opening chapter of Charlotte Bront 's novel, taking refuge in a window-seat from hostile relatives inside the house and cold weather outside it, and taking comfort of sorts from the "introductory pages" of Thomas Bewicks's History of British Birds. Or the peasant Huguenot family near Uz s described by Andre Gide in his Si le grain ne meurt, hearing the Bible read by their grandfather before supper, and whose intelligence and moral dignity seem ascribable to this regular encounter with the word (and, of course, with the Word).

Such scenes of reading - and there are lots more where these came from - keep affirming key features of classic reading (features which writers no less than educationists have come think of as traditional and normal). Absolutely noticeable in the first place, is that these acts of reading are quiet. Here are people stilled in contemplation, prayerful even, face to face silently with the words on the page, words felt to be important, in the private space of reflection where a classic Protestant individuality got formed, a space for and of extended self-reflection. ("I like those great still books," Tennyson once said. "I wish there were a great novel in hundreds of volumes that I might go on and on.") When this quiet space is invaded (as Jane Eyre's is by her brutal cousin John Reed) the shock is grievous and hurtful (she cuts her head on a door jamb dodging the Bewick he throws at her).

Noticeable, too, is the logocentrism, the concentration on words, in these scenes. Here are encounters with a real presence - the word made flesh, the author made present. "Every picture" in the Bewick, says Jane, "tells a story"; but it's the letter-press that speaks loudest. And like the Voice of God in the Christian concept of His Word, the text's words are heard feelingly. Like the God who addresses Everyman in the quotation still on every Everyman book, the author is expected to appear to, and to go with, the reader. In such acts of reading, the absent author is summoned, as Lazarus was in the Gospel, to rise from the dead, from among the silent signs on the page, to speak to the reader. On such a view, in Milton's words, books have "a life beyond life", and readers are what Dickens might have called Resurrection Men.

And the result is educative for the whole self of the reader. This sort of reading is food for the self, material for self-fashioning. The person's image repertoire is provisioned this way. Here the character acquires "the words to say it". ("You are like the Roman emperors", Jane tells her terrible cousin: she can define him because "I had read Goldsmith's History of Rome.") "Here, then, was a secret of life", is what Maggie Tulliver concludes from reading Thomas a Kempis.

And so the assumption has been down to modern times. Coleridge finds "some smack" of himself in Hamlet. Josef Brodsky is enabled to endure in the Gulag by reading Auden's elegy for Yeats. Arnold Wesker can only imagine experience with the aid of King Lear and the Book of Job. And it is no accident that such pronounced results should be imagined as coming from books, from the act of page-turning, an experience of sequential, linear reading. Such texts imply sequentiality of person and life and the consequentiality of action - an acknowledgement of a "Law of Consequences" which George Eliot rightly thought of as intrinsic to the classic plot of fiction and to serious moral life.

By great contrast the post-book world is not like this. And it's hard not to believe that the post-classic-reading scene has lost by its differences from what came earlier. By its noise, for a start. The old quiet spaces of reading are now blitzed by the noise of the new media. Even the library's traditional quiet is disturbed by the clicking of laptops. The new media grabs attention noisily and deprives me not only of quiet, but of private selectivity. We're all in, as it were, a street vista of unevadable neon, invaded by the throb of passing car-stereos.

The radio and the telly are on all the time. Incoming e-mails bombard my screen like enemy flak. And all these signs are utterly over-stated - no song without a video to go with it; no words - not even in the books sections of the posh papers - without a large picture; no novel without a screen adaptation (and look at how prescriptive, skimming and wrenching they usually are).

And this neo-reading scene is, too, not so much personal as tribal. The reader becomes less an individual attending to an individual text than a consuming member of a crowd, where the I relishes the blurring of its boundaries into the throng. Here the point is not real presences, not characters and persons, but rather ikons, idols, fantasy objects (Diana, Marilyn, Gazza), distant objects of desire - images rather than dramatis personae you can know and touch and test: weather girls, quiz-show hosts, speaking-clock voices, stars, rather than Pip and Emma, Job and Hamlet.

And here text has become emphatically non-linear, a scatter, a fragmented field, a cut-and-paste job, its startlingly neo-epistolary status affirmed by the Web's jots and amateurishly rambling stories. So what price the sequence and consequence, the connected lineality of classic fiction and western selfhood when at the touch of two buttons you can cut and paste everything to somewhere else? What price, indeed, anything at all that's written, when the push of a single button can erase the whole lot? Easy go, therefore easy come. All the loudly broadcast bits, the great rosters of incoming images and noises are indeed throwaway stuff, ephemera, not intended to have a shelf-life. And what words are left simply diminish in importance. Authors don't matter (who cares who wrote that soap?). Consequently, we get casual about questions of point and meaning, and accuracy and truth, as well, incidentally, as about all the once carefully attended to details of writing, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the like.

Classic reading was - is - hard. As witness all those novels at the beginning of the great modern tradition registering the difficulty of lineality, the sheer awkwardness of keeping the pages turning - like Tristram Shandy with its pained deferrals, or Gulliver clambering about his vast reading step-ladder in Brobdignag to negotiate the near-impossibility of the big book - as well as novel after novel presenting reading as an error-strewn path (Crime and Punishment, it might be, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Sons and Lovers).

And extremely dismaying has been the recent way whole sections of universities have thrown in the reading towel and Literary Theory has fostered the post-book scenario - hostile to authors, canons, classics, as well as to individual selfhood, humanism, Dead White European Males (DWEMS), and eager to collapse all media into "text", to democratise all utterance as "literature", to dissolve specifically literary study into the looser game of "media" studies. And all without weighing seriously enough the consequences of the changes of heart which follow from new styles of reading even more dramatically than they do from new styles of architecture.

Valentine Cunningham is English fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and the author of In the Reading Gaol (Blackwell)

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