Thursday, January 31, 2008

Does Reading Last?

Television acts like a drug. Fernando was telling me this the other day. A study has demonstrated that when people watch TV they feel better than they did just before and just after.
“It makes them feel happy and relaxed,” Fernando said, “but it doesn’t last.”
Next day Laurel asked about reading: “Does it last longer than TV?”
Until Fernando and I can get funding to find out, I will deliver my hunch: yes, it lasts a great deal longer. Or it can, anyway.
I still remember the pleasure I got out of reading Robinson Crusoe when I was fifteen, lying on the kitchen floor with my head propped against the washing machine. And the feeling of divine discontent and longing I got reading The Wind in the Willows when I was sixteen and about thirty more times since then. And the sudden quivering jolt I felt in my spinal column reading E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation at thirty-eight.
Then Laurel’s husband, Chris, asked, “And how did you feel watching It’s an Incredible Life?
Hmm. I’m sure I felt good. But I don’t remember it.
“It’s because when you read, you become that character,” Laurel said. Surely that can be emotionally affecting. And I think there is something more, too.
Here’s what I think. Reading lasts—especially reading complex enough to engage you to the tip-end of your spine—because it takes so much work.
Television takes a little work, too. You have to pay attention a little bit, you have to remember a little bit. But as a genre, ordinary television programming doesn’t work you too hard. The canned laughter tells you when it’s funny, the actor’s voices tell you when they are sincere or sarcastic, the flash-backs remind you that the murder was done with a bullet to the brain.
Movies work you harder. I am talking about the complex ones, the arty ones. You have to pay attention more closely and remember more carefully and think more. Two weeks after watching Blowup you might still be trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.
Reading works you harder still. You have to construct the whole she-bang as you go along. You have to decode a sequence of alphabetic characters and construe grammar and build up a context and look words up in a dictionary.
You have to figure out that the names Alyosha and Alexey refer to the same person, and you have to remember that Dmitri is the only son who believed he had property.
You have to know that Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo side with the Trojans and Hera, Athena, and Poseidon side with the Achaians, that these are gods and goddesses, not men and women, and that Ares is a two-face.
You have to realize when something is comic. When the spotted ponies begin walking through people’s houses, you must decide whether this is hilarious or merely incomprehensible.
Sometimes you have to supply a central fact of the story, because the author makes you work even for that: that the man taking the fishing trip is a traumatized war veteran. And sometimes a central fact is not even a fact but an unresolved dilemma: does the terrified boy who climbed to the top of the water tower climb down again?
Now what were we talking about? It started with television’s drug effect—drugs don’t last—and then there was something about the effects of books lasting, sometimes, for a very long time. Yes. And that reading, good reading, is work, because the author constructs a whole world, puts it into code, and then you have to reconstruct it with your own brain if you are ever going to get it at all.
Ah. And getting it is the whole point of doing it, because we become more than we were before.