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  • Reading And Depth Of Field
  • Sven Birkerts

Ihave the idea that much of what we think of as literary reading involves the animation of an interior space—a kind of supporting world for the narrative elements—and that the logistics of this phenomenon are in some way comparable to the way we create depth of field when we look at a naturalistic painting. The painter creates the effect through very specific techniques, which include placing the vanishing point and setting up a complex balance between forms and colors. The writer, apart from the deployment of actual descriptive elements—pictorial indicators that make a scene in the reader’s mind—manages his evocation more subtly, perhaps even less consciously. This supporting world exists in the imagination of the writer, and it comes to exist, however differently, in the mind of the reader. What interests me is the transfer, which takes place right from the threshold, even where the language is not deliberately descriptive or evocative.

In part, I would argue, the process depends not on a meeting of minds or sensibilities, but on a meeting of the wills. At the root of the writer’s endeavor is the will to convey an entire interior world to the reader. So, too, the true impulse behind reading is the reader’s will to bring another world inside his own. Without this wanting-to-give and wanting-to-receive, both writing and reading acts are inert. Of course, none of this can be measured, and unless one falls into a Heideggerian idiom the process is very difficult to discuss. Still, we need to be aware that the transfer happens—ideally—between two charged poles.

Between the writer and the reader there are only the words on the page. What is striking, if seldom remarked, is the process of the transfer. [End Page 122] What essentially happens is that the black marks are converted not only into a sensible narrative—if we are reading a novel, say—but they also elicit in the reader the surrounding impression of a world that is strong enough to sustain the narrative line—that gives it credibility.

This transfer, for the sighted reader, takes place via the collusion of eye and ear. The sight of the word creates the hearing memory; though we are moving our eyes we are, in a sense, listening, and it is fundamentally as listeners that we furnish that interior space. Indeed, could it be that in reading we recapitulate origins, returning to the orality that predated literacy? If this were so, then one could perhaps locate in the reading act a kind of fundamental friction: between the imperatives of literate prose and the vestiges of oral conditioning that control our primary sense-making operations.

But remember, when we read with the eye we are not actually hearing—the tympanum does not vibrate—we are listening in memory. Which means that it’s not the physical ear, but the metaphysical mind that is engaged. And maybe this holds a clue about the mysterious sensations reading can sometimes unleash: the fact that body (the ear) and mind are joined by the strand of memory for the duration of the act.

We hear in memory—more and less sharply. The more sharply we hear, the more intense will likely be our reading experience. Or, at least, the more vivid. This sharpness of hearing has to do, in part, with the focus and will that we are able to direct at the words on the page; and in part with the author’s ability to reward our attentiveness. The Coleridgean model of a “willing suspension of disbelief” is too simplistic and too passive. Indeed, it figures the primary act of will in reading as a will to be passive, to neutralize oneself before the expression of the author.

I see the receptive will as far more active and creative. For one does not merely absorb—hear—the conscious and unconscious components of the author’s work; one instantly sets about bringing to life that interior scape. Reading performs an energetic hearing—a listening. This listening begins with the very first words, and the greatest expenditure of conscious and...

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pp. 122-129
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