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Readingsby Sven Birkerts
Excerpt from "The Grasshopper on the Windowsill"
We generally think of reading in the transitive sense, as the reading of something specific, the deed then defined or somehow constrained by the thing read: reading the newspaper, reading John Grisham, reading Marcel Proust. I would like to consider reading as an internal act-freed of all its transitive encumbrance-and in so doing expose what may be its subversive possibility.
Probably not much has changed about the basic dynamics of the reading process since people began to internalize language sounds and to gather in sense without enunciating, without even moving their lips. But in former times moving from some worldly activity-working or socializing-to reading involved a switching of the cognitive channel; one moved the beam of awareness from doings in the sphere of the actual to the somewhat differently constituted doings on the page. But now, increasingly, the reading act requires that we create the beam of awareness itself. That is, to read we often have to finda way to make ourselves pay attention; we have to make ourselves go against the grain. Living in a late-modern culture, attending to several things at once, we are subject to the constant distribution of our internal energies, and are routinely cut away from the sort of focus that used to be our natural state.
What I will say next is very basic, but I fear that we may be losing sight of it: The objects of our attention matter less than the purity of our awareness. I mean: It is better, more rewarding, to study the grasshopper on the windowsill with full attention than to stand half-distractedly before a painting by Paul Klee or Botticelli. Attention completes the inner circuit, and completing that circuit is everything-at least if we care about the idea of an integral subjective self.
As it happens, reading is one of the very few things that you can only really do with full attentiveness. The act not only requires focus, it sharpens the focus as the reader proceeds with the work (assuming, as I assume throughout, that we are reading something worthy of our capabilities). This is because of the mysterious bond-I won't say identity-between language and cognition: Language is partly projected into the world, partly still embedded in consciousness itself. But let's leave that to the linguists and philosophers. The point is that we can half listen to a piece of music, pay partial attention as we drive, and add up our grocery tab while making love, but when we read we've got to be reading-we must be all there, or else the activity is pointless.
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