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  • Reading and RereadingA Twenty-First Century Perspective
  • Jon Thiem (bio)


It is the first decade of the twenty-first century. A friend of mine, an educational psychologist in his sixties, tells me, “J.K. Rowling should get the Nobel Prize in Literature.” “Why Rowling?” I ask. He says: “Because the Harry Potter series has done what the rest of us were never able to do: it has gotten millions of kids to read books.”

It is the nineteen-nineties. Benji, my son, is listening to a science fiction novel on audiobook. I try to ask him a question. He says, “Dad, don’t interrupt me, I’m reading.” I say, “What do you mean reading? You’re not reading, you’re listening!” Benji says, “I call it reading.”

It is the nineteen-seventies. I’m on an airplane going to the MLA. I become aware that the woman across the aisle from me is reading the last pages of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Tears well up in her eyes and roll down her cheeks.

These anecdotes might stand for different phases in the modern history of fiction reading. The Nobel Prize for Rowling is not just a bizarre idea. It is an elegy for a certain kind of reading, what I will call sustained reading. My son’s equation of “reading” and “being read to” marks a major shift, since 1990, in the meaning of literacy. It calls attention to the new orality of reading. Finally, consider the tears of the Werther reader. I am sure she was a literary scholar going to the MLA, like me, to find a job. Which makes her reaction [End Page 163] to the story especially poignant. My hunch is that it was her first reading.

In his book Rereading Călinescu pays little attention to weeping readers. He has no place for the Odysseus who breaks down and cries when he hears his own tale retold by the bard—in effect a “rereading.” Search Călinescu’s index up and down. Where are the entries on empathy and emotion?

The woman’s tears on the airplane remind me of the passionate readers who first read Goethe’s novel in the late eighteenth century. A few of them, in imitation of Werther, took their own lives. They took their lives in imitation of a fictional person. I reflect on the unwitting power that a non-existent being can exercise over a real person—to the point, even, of causing the real person to enter into a (similar) state of non-existence.

Sustained reading has its perils. These perils were recognized by writers who lived when books held a dominant position in culture.1 Cervantes, Schopenhauer, and Proust were among those writers. Now that sustained reading seems endangered, everybody forgets the other danger. Reading is good for you.

Matei Călinescu began to write Rereading more than twenty years ago. Since then a new generation has grown up in a culture of digital literacy. The relevance of Călinescu’s model of reading has been challenged by two principal developments. First, by the dominance of new interactive technologies, through which “reading” has acquired a different meaning. Secondly, by the “cognitive turn” in literary studies, especially the focus on empathy in readers’ cognition of fictional texts.

In the first part of this paper I offer a critical summary of Călinescu’s model of reading. In the second, I examine the applicability of the model to the new reading culture. The third part compares Călinescu’s idea of the reader as impersonator to the “empathic reader,” a construct that has now gained influence within the academy and without.


The kernel of this paper came into being several years ago, when I chanced upon Lafcadio Hearn’s English version of a Japanese tale, “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōïchi.”

The story tells of a blind minstrel named Hōïchi. He accompanies his recitations on a biwa, the traditional four-stringed lute. He lives in a temple that was built to appease the spirits of the great Heiké clan, who were all killed in a sea battle, and were buried...


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pp. 163-193
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