It’s not new to ponder the demise of reading and the printed page, to note that reading has become exotic – that the printed page is going the way of woodblock prints. It’s certainly not new to bemoan the demise of literary writing and the state of publishing, the relegation of challenging long-form fiction and non-fiction to the purview of a literary elite, like dinosaurs or ancient scribes with special privilege and access to ancient code. What hasn’t been said enough, however, what should continue to be shouted from the towers (ivory, stone, even Lego) is that reading, writing and books are possibly the only spaces we have left in cultural exchange that are potentially the most radical and private, where the imagination is free to roam, in its own time, without built-in distractions (pop-corn chompers in the next row, hyperlinks to shopping, pop-up dictionaries) imposed by the producers.
As a novelist, I have for my entire writing life lived with the pending death of the very thing I love best – a threat that was raised long before I was born and continued among literary circles via Roland Barthes and, most recently, Will Self. But the novel’s death has been greatly exaggerated, the evidence for which seems to be the revival of young adult fiction and the Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter phenomena that sweep through teenage lives and demonstrate that they are reading more than you think. But while some studies say that young people are reading more, others confirm that screens encourage skipping of content, lack of concentration (even now I’m tempted to look at the email that just came through on the top right-hand of my screen, and when I am reading an e-Book I end up lost in dictionary meanings and links to Google that send me off on tangents, away from the intimate message of the book’s universe). My personal experience bears out that people who say there is just as much reading as ever are not talking about reading in the same way I am.
We are at a crossroads, it seems: every day there is an article in one of the main international papers or literary journals about the screen over the printed word… The threat is to in-depth engagement with language itself.”
Most of the young people in my life, from teenagers to the students I teach at a London university, find reading a book, or reading any complicated piece of writing that isn’t a tweet, a daunting challenge to the limited time they have for everything life requires of them. In schools they are asked to read much less than what I was asked to read: fair enough, I was not asked to know how to navigate current technology or be as visually literate (let alone adept) about the images around me. But we are at a crossroads, it seems: every day there is an article in one of the main international papers or literary journals about the screen over the printed word, literary fiction in peril, the closure of independent bookstores, or whether binge-watching ‘good’ TV or playing video games are the new long-form immersive experiences that have replaced the novel. The threat is not only digital over the traditional technology of book publishing; the threat, it seems, is to the act of extended reading and the technology of language and its complications, its power to create unique, compelling universes which will satisfy the contemporary consumer of stories or other literary investigations. The threat is to in-depth engagement with language itself.
There is a YouTube clip called Medieval Helpdesk, in which a monk is showing another monk how to read a book. It reminds us that every innovation is a new technology at first. The video underlines for me the specificity of the technology of words grouped together and between covers. It’s about the words themselves – what they can do in this context. A book is not only about story, not about the climatic bang-for-your-buck of getting to the ‘point’ of what’s on the page; it’s not about the clocked wages of time spent watching characters.
To engage with a book is to embark on an expedition. The pleasure comes with the journey itself, within the vehicle of language: the play, the subtleties, the things that words pushed up against one another can do in terms of meaning, undermining meaning, providing images, messing with images, the space between the words where all the meaning is actually taking place. The joy and the power come from the language on the page itself, not only from the story arc or the information conveyed in it.
It’s not new to assert that language is power, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it. But image is power too, and this is certainly played out every single moment of our current collective lives. Perhaps language and its technology on the page offer a threat to the power of image, and perhaps that’s also what I love about it. Moshin Hamid recently described the novel as the “second-largest pleasure-based data transfer that can take place between two human beings, exceeded only by sex.” I’ll go one step further, to suggest that reading a book, at this point in our technological evolution, is to engage in radical acts: to hold, own, engage with over years if I wish, without interference – in privacy that is not afforded any other act of exchange with a stranger (even sex seems to have its accordant sex tape or voyeurs) – something potentially life-changing.
A book as a closed entity of relationship between reader and writer – without access to the web, without links, without cross-references – is a unique and potentially subversive, indeed infinitely powerful, tool. Perhaps the old-fashioned technology of a book is the last radical outlet we have in a digital culture. Not only can I hold one – feel its weight, the quality of the paper, know how much I have left to enjoy as I progress – I can own it. It will not disappear out of my Cloud, reclaimed by whatever streaming provider might have sold it to me. With Amazon’s ability to know just what books I’ve ordered, read, highlighted, and with streamed books through subscription – Amazon Unlimited and its feature that will allow them to share the highlighting of all the readers of any given book – I shudder at the intrusion, the lack of privacy for all readers.
There’s a freedom that thrives in that exchange on paper between one mind and another that will never be replicated by mass access to tweets and the moment-by-moment thoughts of any one individual.”
I can burn a book, but I can’t fully erase the trace of my own Facebook presence from anyone else’s; nor do I have any control of what’s on the web about me, as the information is not mine (the European Court’s ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling against Google is an interesting challenge to this). There’s a freedom that thrives in that exchange on paper between one mind and another that will never be replicated by mass access to tweets and the moment-by-moment thoughts of any one individual. This is not in any way to undermine what social networking has done for political, radical, freedom-based thinking and organising. Not in the slightest. But we now know just how capable governments are of tracing everything we do over the internet.
Short of going off-grid – sustaining creative and imaginative cultural exchange out of range of satellite tracking (good luck with that) – reading a book might just be one of the few untraceable, radical cultural acts we can enjoy. And, let’s ask the question: do screens truly house the cutting-edge, radical thinking and writing of our contemporary life? Probably, but there’s just so much noise, so much unfiltered, un-curated writing that makes it really hard to find the things that feel ground-breaking, or to know who you’re talking to or reading and how to really connect to them beyond Facebook. In contrast, I recently ran across, in a market stall, a small poetry chapbook entitled Eat My Corn. I sat down with the pamphlet over tea, feeling oddly like I’d made a new friend, engrossed in its images and rhythms. Then and there I felt radicalised to issues of independent, small-scale farming in Wisconsin. Holding the pamphlet in my hands was important. The way the words fell on the page and the spaces between the words were important.
Reading stories as opposed to seeing them on a screen allows my active creation of the imaginary world in which the story is based. I can have my own picture of the character in my head, mine alone, that I carry around for the rest of my days. My Rochester, my Gatsby – until they get pinned down and I can only see Michael Fassbinder or Leonardo DiCaprio. While these are not at all bad images to have and hold, they’re not necessarily those I would have co-created with Brontë or Fitzgerald.
Books allow for anything and everything. There are also old arguments in favour of fiction over non-fiction, asserting the imagination as not only the most bearable of worlds, but eternally a place of possibility. The imagined future, past and present are infinitely more robust, vibrant, promising than anything that is reported as fact. As a writer I thrive in fiction because it is where I can make the most sense of the world around me. I’m not creating documentary or history; I am creating possibility. As a reader I’m co-creating it with the author of the book I’m immersed in. It’s a connection with infinite potential – perhaps more so than what’s available to us in romantic or other social relationships. Art creates connection, which is what we are hungry for. In fiction I can visit Spain in the 1600s via Cervante’s Don Quixote; or late 19th-century Nigeria in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; I can enter the fragile personal world of a boy with wings in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or partake in the past-present-future mash-up poetics of China Miéville.
Reading a book is like implementing new software: finding a world that allows me to do and know something I didn’t know or do previously. It’s not passive. Reading is co-creation.”
Reading is also, apparently, good for your health. Studies show it improves memory, and steadies breathing the way meditation can (it has cured my hiccups when nothing else has worked); it staves off dementia, aids sleep, eases depression and, most crucially, encourages empathy. For me this last point is its most healthy side-effect. Engaging in another person’s moral universe, whether we agree with them or not, entering the emotional landscape of a fictional character – as a writer as well as a reader – for whom we have no previous experience and whose actions we might not understand or might even abhor (but whose humanity I, as a writer, must indulge in to create a viable story) is an act of faith in the human condition. It is an act of empathy. If I give that to a reader, I’ve done my job.
Empathy implies not believing you have the answer to everything solely in yourself – that there are grey areas in your understanding of the human condition that can only be navigated by connection with others who have opposing positions or experience. Empathy is fundamental to a healthy society. And literature offers access to this. Writers are plagued by watching. In their plight they often see more than they even want to, or things that others might have missed; fiction engages in the continual excavating and revealing of the human condition in all its complexity. For every region of the world, every social ill or conflict, every existential question among us, there is a book that can illuminate a way towards the answers. These answers are not to be found in the black-and-white of short-term, finite solutions or in a tweet. The answers take time, like reading a book does. They take thinking, complicated approaches and creative solutions that must take shape in the imagination first. In order to more fully understand the complexities of current issues around environmental neglect, the failings of diplomacy, or personal alienation and its effect over time, I would recommend turning to books: to J.G.Ballard’s The Drowned World; Herta Muller’s The Hunger Angel; Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust; David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, to name merely a few among thousands.
Reading a book is like implementing new software: finding a world that allows me to do and know something I didn’t know or do previously. It’s not passive. Reading is co-creation. As Sartre asserts, what literature ultimately articulates is the “inexpressible” and the writer “appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work.” Or to quote Proust: “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”
I am at my highest level of engagement with the human mind while reading, and my own thoughts and life are improved because of it. I read and write because these acts express my faith in humanity. Because it’s all much more complex than what we may know via our own experience. I read (and write) to be free.
Thanks to the organisers and participants of Kinnernet Europe 2014 for the opportunity to discuss the ideas that inspired this article.
Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and raised in Canada and now teaches creative writing at the University of East London, dividing her time between London and Toronto. She is the author of six novels and one novella for young adults. She is also a producer on To the Wedding, a film in development based on John Berger’s novel. Her fiction has been nominated for a Toronto Book Award and a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her latest novel, Higher Ed, has just been published by Random House Canada and will be published by Scribe UK in August. Read more.
Author portrait © Christine Mofardin