Feb 1, 2012

On the Experience of Reading Novels

  What is the experience of reading a novel? The experience of reading novels is a solitary one. While it is common to hear authors read from their newly published books at signings, or to listen to a novel on tape, these are subsidiary experiences of the novel that I relegate to the category of performance rather than reading. Orality is to the epic what solitude is to the novel. The Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were not meant to be read silently to oneself but were told out loud and spun by a storyteller as part of an oral musical performance. Prose fiction did not begin with the novel; Satyricon was written centuries before Moll Flanders. Scholars debate as to what constitutes the first novel -- is it Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or is it Richardson’s Pamela, or DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe? -- I think the answer to this question lies in the shift between reading publicly versus reading as an internalized experience. The epics were meant as univocal expressions of storytelling governed by the principle of archetype and standard mythological rendering. Often the plot was well known by the hearers. 

Theatergoers who attended Sophocles’ production of Oedipus Rex were well aware of the plot. And this is true even for Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream, while certainly not lost in an individual reading, the dramatic form, like the epic, is meant to be performed, not read. The point of storytelling has been for centuries a ritualized experience and not at all adumbrated by individuality or an experience with everyday particularities. To read a novel once is an individual experience and to read the same novel twice is yet another distinct reading. Even movies, another modern discovery, are more akin to public storytelling than what happens when I read a novel. Reading as an individualized personal experience is a modern discovery. Augustine, for example, was shocked to discover Ambrose reading to himself. In the West reading has been considered mostly a public act. Those who owned books were either the clergy or the very wealthy. Books were proclaimed rather than read. The correlation between introspective thought and reading troubled Augustine because he did not equate reading with individuality. What we consider the modern novel is instantiated by introspection and was only made possible broadly by the invention of the printing press which made books cheaper and more easily accessible to the masses.

Novels are heavily entrenched in the particulars of everyday life, such as a bathing, doing the laundry, eating a sour grape off the vine, making love on an unmade bed, reflections on the banal and the mundane, and so on. The novel lingers in the details of everyday lived experience. The novel is a repudiation of the epic form’s dependence on universals. Once we are inside a novel we are wrapped up in a world of particulars. Like Pip, in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, who traces his fingers over the particular raised letters of his dead parents' names inscribed on their tombstone, to conjure an image of what they must have been like, either stout or tall, fat or grim, we do the same when we read a novel, trace our fingers over the individual characters, in their instantaneous contingencies in order to trace out a life, to search out a proper name for universal life, to match both life and literature.

 

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