Thursday, June 30, 2005

A luncheon talk ...

I was invited to speak this afternoon over lunch at the Franklin Inn Club. What follows is a version of my remarks:

My topic is Reading as a Creative Act.
What’s that supposed to mean? Writing — that’s creative, at least it can be. But reading? What’s creative about that?
Well, let me remind you of an experience I suspect everyone in this room has had at one time or another:
You go the movies and see a picture based on a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed. And you find you’re disappointed — because you imagined it all differently from the way the filmmakers did. You imagined it in your own particular way, a highly personal way.
So consider: An imaginative writer — a novelist, say — creates a text. But that text remains in what the medieval scholastics called a state of potency until somebody reads it. Reading actuates the potency. But the reader does that by bringing to bear on the text his or her own imagination.
It’s a lot like what happens when an instrumentalist plays a piece of music. If you heard me play the Prelude No. 1 from Bach’s first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier and then put on a recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing the same piece, you’d know right away who was the more creative reader of the score.
Moreover, when you play a piece of music and everything goes right, even though it’s your fingers striking the keys, and your foot on the pedal, the experience you have sitting there isn’t so much of something that you’re doing as it is of something that is happening through you. “You are the music while the music lasts,” as Eliot put it. No good musician ever plays exactly what’s written down. He brings to what he is playing a wealth of knowledge, skill, taste, and experience.
The same thing happens often when you’re reading. You get completely absorbed. You lose all sense of time and place and even, sometimes, the sense of yourself. You’re with Nostromo in Panama or soaring over the rooftops of London with Scrooge and one of the Christmas ghosts. You’re no longer here and now. Now, you’re there.
That’s why it’s so silly when people talk about reading the Bible literally. No text, least of all one as rich as the Bible, deserves to be read that way, because it reduces words to mere signs. And words are more than signs. They’re symbols. They have connotations. They resonate. They’re redolent.
This is something I’ve come to think about a lot since becoming The Inquirer’s book review editor five years ago. I’ve been reviewing books professionally for over 40 years, and I’ve been an avid reader since childhood. But when I got this job I found myself reading more than I ever had before.
And I discovered something very intriguing. I found my interest in more passive forms of entertainment had dropped noticeably. I can hardly watch television at all. Most of the shows seem hardly to rub elbows with reality. I also find myself impatient at movies. As often as not they don’t engage me as quickly and completely as a good book can. They leave too little up to my imagination.
This has led me to a better understanding of what I think my job ought to be about. I have found that a lot of people in my position think that they are somehow or other in the service of LIT-rature. I see myself as being in the service of reading — and readers. Because I think it is very important that people realize how essential the act of reading is to maintaining a mind that is active.
Of course, there is reading and there is reading. Readers can fall into a rut, reading the same sort of thing over and over. That’s fine if what you’re reading and re-reading is something like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Shakespeare’s plays. Those texts are practically infinite in their richness. Now I like thrillers; I read and review a lot of them — but a steady diet of them lulls the mind into a pattern of repetition. And repetition weakens the mind.
That’s why it’s important to maintain one’s acquaintance with the classics. And with poetry, the richest, most concentrated form of verbal expression. Engagement with a truly rich text enables the mind to encounter the world afresh. And we feel more alive when the world looks fresh.
So I will conclude with a poem, one by Wallace Stevens, which makes some of the same points I have been trying to — but in a far more elegant way than I ever could. It’s called “The house was quiet and the world was calm.”

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.


  1. Bravo, Frank! Bravo! Wonderful speech.

  2. Excellent talk, Mr. Wilson. Here are three "reading" quotations, only the first of which expands on your theme; the other two sort of garnish it.
    Emerson: "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book."
    Logan Pearsall Smith: "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."
    Fran Lebowitz: "There's no question that at no time in my life have I ever thought that life was as good as reading. And I haven't had a bad life. . . . It isn't that I don't enjoy, I do. But I would rather read than have any kind of real life, like working, or being responsible. Reading prepares you for other reading, and possibly for writing, but, I'm happy to say, it certainly has nothing to do with real life. All the things that I never did because I was reading, so what? If someone said to me, how did you spend your life? I'd have to say, lying on the sofa reading."

  3. Mr. Wilson, the conversational tone of your writing engaged me througout the speech, I feel like I know you!

    It's good to see that some people do enjoy the active engagement of reading books as oppose to popping corn in the mouth while an image flickers in front of their eyes.

    However, I don't meet many people that consciously decipher their active and passive moments. If people did decipher the moments, they might read more. If people were forced to think consciously about their moments, they might see how passive lives they live. I did, after reading your speech, I feel my mind is still too lazy, too unattentive.

  4. Hi Blackface:
    I think we all have the problem of drifting on mental autopilot from time to time. One of the valuable things about reading is precisely that it can jump-start our awareness. I remember, on more than one occasion, looking out the window on a cold rainy morning and feeling gloomy about myself, the world, and life. And suddenly the words Shakespeare gives to Hamlet -- "how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" -- would pop into my mind and I would feel, not better, but better able to cope. Thos unfamiliar with Shakespeare do not have those lines to fall back on.