What are you actually doing when you read a novel? What's the point of reading, and if you've forgotten what you read, did it really matter? I’ve noticed a few articles lately that deal with these questions about literature and the sort of knowledge you get out of reading. The most recent was a few days ago in the NY Times The Stone column, where philosopher Robert Pippin gave a “Defense of Naïve Reading.” After describing how an overly scientific “research paradigm” has infiltrated the modern study of literature, he says:
"Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language. This response can certainly be enriched by knowledge of context and history, but the objects express a first-person or subjective view of human concerns that is falsified if wholly transposed to a more “sideways on” or third person view. Indeed that is in a way the whole point of having the “arts.”
Likewise ─ and this is a much more controversial thesis ─ such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge — exemplified in what Aristotle said about the practically wise man (the phronimos)or in what Pascal meant by the difference between l’esprit géometrique and l’esprit de finesse — is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy."In "Reading in a Digital Age", literary critic Sven Birkerts suggests something similar – that the novel is not just a statement or message-driven device to allow an author to convey content to his readers. Not at all, in fact, literature is much more about creating an experience and fostering a new way of thinking:
"[The novel] is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind... it's inwardly experiential, intransitive, a mode of contemplation, its purpose being to create for the author and reader a terrain, an arena of liberation, where mind can be different, where mind and imagination can freely combine...
I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion."Finally, author James Collins in "The Plot Escapes Me" struggles with the dreadful thought that all his reading might have been a waste of time, since he can't recall the plot:
“But this cannot be. Those books must have reshaped my brain in ways that affect how I think, and they must have left deposits of information with some sort of property — a kind of mental radiation — that continues to affect me even if I can’t detect it. Mustn’t they have? …
“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”
This was very encouraging, and it makes intuitive sense: we have been formed by an accretion of experiences, only a small number of which we can readily recall. You may remember the specifics of only a few conversations with your best friend, but you would never ask if talking to him or her was a waste of time. As for the arts, I can remember in detail only a tiny fraction of the music I have listened to, or the movies I have watched, or the paintings I have looked at, but it would be absurd to claim that experiencing those works had no influence on me. The same could be said of reading.”I tend to agree that literature can’t be measured in a strictly quantifiable way, books are not only objects of “research” to be studied and explicated, and reading must affect us long after the details of a novel or the experience of curling up on the couch are gone. How exactly – I can’t say. (I’ll obviously have to go read more about it).