I am going to take it as very nearly axiomatic that readingthe actplays a vital role in the formation and conditioning of sensibility. Not for everyone, of course, but in the life of the committed reader. What interests me is trying to puzzle out the nature of that role. But before I venture in that direction, I feel that I should pause over one wordsensibility. It is, I realize, a term that is slipping from the lexicon; there is a sort of nineteenth-century mustiness clinging to its five syllables. Sensibility is neither self nor ego, neither identity nor personality. Where there are designations for something one has or is, sensibility is more of a construct. The old sense of the word is of a refinement or cultivation of presence, a part of the self not given but fashioned. A defining, if cloudy, complex of attitudes, predilections, and honed responses. And for this reason I want to have the term available. For while it can be many different things, reading is, for the serious reader, above all an agency of self-making. The effort of actualizing a text, when undertaken freely, is implicitly the token of a desire to actualize and augment some part of the self. The act assumes a possibility of deepened self-understanding and therefore recognizes the self as malleable. It is the intimate, perhaps secret, part of a larger project, a project that has little to do with societal conceptions of the individual.
I realize that to talk about reading and its particular influence on self-making, I will need to distinguish not only among different kinds of reading, but also point out some of the conspicuous ways in which the reading act changes across the trajectory of the readers career. The process that begins, in most cases, with being read to, and which sponsors the most intense sorts of identifications in the independent reading of childhood, is something else again in adolescence, and again in full-fledged maturity, and yet again, I would guess, in later years. But since with adulthood and the later years we are generally talking about sensibilities that have more or less crystallized, the likeliest periods at which to look are those of childhood and adolescence.
Being read to, while not strictly reading, is nonetheless not an entirely passive absorption either, as any parent can tell you. The child naturally fleshes out the narrative through imaginative projection, but also engages the book itself, looking at the illustrations, monitoring the momentum of the turning pages, and, with the increase of aptitude, noting the correlation between what is being read out loud and the placement of the words on the page. In a very real sense, being read to sets into motion that specialized activity of inwardness that will make private reading rewardingand very nearly inevitable.
Independent childhood reading seems to continue and elaborate upon the process of imaginative projection. It is, beautifully and openly, a voluntary participation in an ulterior scheme of reality. We might almost call it pure escape, except that getting away is probably less the motivating impetus than getting to. Early childhood reading is the free indulgence of fantasy and desire, done because it feels good. Children are not out to improve themselves; nor are they, in any obvious sense, trying to figure out the terms of existence (though such figuring certainly goes on unconsciously).
The main difference between childhood reading and reading undertaken later is that, in the former, futuritythe idea of ones life as a project, or adventure, or set of possibilitieshas not yet entered the calculation. The child reads within a bubble. He is like Narcissus staring at his own lovely image. He is still sealed off from any notion of the long-term unfolding of life, except in the perfected terms of fantasy: I, too, will be a pirate...
The change comes with adolescence, that biological and psychological free-fire zone during which the profoundest existential questions are not only posed, but are lived. Who am I? Why am I doing what Im doing? What should I do? What will happen to me? It is in adolescence that most of us grasp that lifeour own lifeis a problem to be solved, that a set of personal unknowns must now be factored together with the frightening variables of experience. The future suddenly appearsit is the space upon which the answers will be inscribed. The very idea of futurity becomes charged with electricity.
This self-intensity, which pushes toward the future as toward some kind of release, is highly conducive to reading. The bookthe novel, that isbecomes the site for testing transformations. Indeed, whatever else it may be, diversion or escape, the book at this stage of life is primarily a screen that will accept and illuminate versions and projections of the self.
These projections are different from those of the child-reader. The child manipulates fantasy stuff that is still undiluted by the reality principle. The boy dreaming of river rafts or space invaders is not yet constrained by the impediments that will eventually curb and instruct his desires. Not so for the adolescent. A different reality has announced itself. Socially, sexually, and even within the bosom of the family that thing that the grownups call "life" has begun to bare its face.
Adolescence, then, is an ideal laboratory for the study of reading and self-formation. Or maybe I should say: a laboratory for studying the ideal impact of reading upon that formation. For of course it is no secret that fewer and fewer adolescents turn to books on their own. And it is precisely this private readingreading done away from school assignmentsthat concerns me here.
How does readingreading fictionwork on the psyche during what has to be its single most volatile period? To pin this down is extremely difficult. We might begin with the most obvious sort of answerencountered all the time in interviews and memoirswhich has to do with the influence of specific books and characters. The subject (who has usually achieved something noteworthy) tells of living with Tom Sawyer or David Copperfield. Admiration led to emulation; there was the desire to do what Tom did, to be like young David. These recognitions were eventually externalized as ideals and in that form guided the behavior long after the memory of the reading had faded. (I can remember several specific situations in which I acted as I did because I believed that was what Jack London would have doneI had all but memorized Irving Stones biography, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback.)
These identifications are inevitable for the reader. They form the very basis of childhood play, and run like a stream alongside the less rooted initiatives of adolescence. There they function as a kind of meta-narrative. If one is not Tom Sawyer or David Copperfield oneself, one nevertheless performs within a magnetic field that somehow contains them. The admiring reader. The admiring reader acts in a world that is half that of the book and half that of the resistant obstacle course present to the senses. The tension is often delicious. Every action is ennobled and exaggerated in significance because the reader imagines it brightly transposed onto the field of the bookthe field of a higher and more enduring reality.
Later, as adult claims displace the more childish conjurings and the adolescent matures, reading takes on a slightly different function. Now the reader begins to borrow from the book the sense of consequential destiny that is so absent from the daily routine. For what the book transmits, over and above its plot and character engagements, is the bewitching assumptions of connectedness. Purpose. Meaning. The characters and situations, products of the authors intending will, are knit together into a teleological wholeness. The least movement or action tends toward; every action is held within the larger context, which is implicitlyaestheticallypurposeful. Our own lives may drift every which way toward the future, but the lives of the characters are aimed and propelled forward into time. As readers we take this in, albeit largely unconsciously, and we begin to conceive of our own actions under this aspect of fatednessat least as long as we are reading or otherwise under the spell of the book. And we thereby become importantjust when we need to most. Our lives seem pointed toward significance and resolution; we feel ourselves living toward, or, at the very least, in the light of its possibility. I dont know that this particular self-charge is available anywhere else but on books. Movies are too compacted and visually determined to encourage such tender echolations of self. Certainly little in the day-to-day circumstance models it for the adolescent. The most obvious versions of futurity are, for them, embodied in their parents, whose lives must appear to be as mired in chaotic distraction as their own.
Remember, I am talking about the reading of fiction. This is not an arbitrary decision on my part. I happen to believe that there is a very special transformation that takes place when we read fiction that makes the act different from any other kind of reading. And this transformation relates absolutely to the question of self-formation. Let me try to illustrate it.
When we read a sentence from a work of non-fictiona history or biography, saythe words intersect with the psychic continuum, but they do not consciously modify it. We do not reposition the self, but merely suspend our awareness of its signals and demands so that we can pay proper attention. Consider, as a representative example, this straightforward sentence plucked from The Columbia History of the World: "When we talk about human evolution, we are dealing with two different kinds of processes: the evolution of the human body and the evolution of human behavior." As we read the words, we decode the syntactical logic of the statement and extract the idea content, the sense. If there is an authorial "voice," we dont hear it. The prose is a conveyor for the concept, a means to an end. We make a place for it in that interior zone where we process verbal information, but we dont ourselves changes. Unless, of course, we encounter an idea that can be translated into relevant personal terms and thus affect our understanding of ourselves. But even then we react less to the words than to the implications we dig out for ourselves.
Now open a novel:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing youll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I dont feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
This, too, is information, but it is obviously information of a very different kind. Reading the earlier sentence about evolution, we make no significant internal adjustment because it is not ourselvesas selvesthat we hear addressed. In the second sentenceit is the opening of Salingers The Catcher In The Ryethe voice is primary. The voice proposed a self, and we must greet it as such. We therefore heed the casual, alienated, determinedly forthright tone and filter the sense of the statement through that. But we cannot heed and filter so long as our own self is in dormancyeither we decide to engage Holdens voice or we close the book.
Salinger, via Holden, posits a world. Holdens world. And the reader who would hear more about it is forced to open up a subjective space large enough to contain it. The opening of that space is the crucial move, for it requires a provisional loosening of whatever fixed attitudes and preconceptions we may have. In that space two versions of reality will be stirred togetherours and the authors. A hybrid life will start up. Not the authors life, not full the characters, and not quite our ownthough all of these must be present for the catalysis of reading to occur.
To read the book we must, in effect, bracket off our own reality, replacing it with Holdens. His can only exist at the expense of oursthis is the law of fiction. We agree to suspend our self-grounded posture, our place in the normal world, in order to make room for Holdens alternative sense of things. We create the textures of his reality with what we have learned from our own. But we dont disappear, either. Our awareness, our sense of our own life, gets filtered into the written reality of the character, where it becomes strangely detached from us. The novel, in a manner of speaking, smelts its reader, extracting as ore our responsive emotions and apprehensions, and then showing then forth in an aesthetic frame. Distanced from these parts of ourselves, then, we (and the adolescent far more intensely) possess them in semi-objectified form. We see that they do, ideally, have a place in a scheme of meaning.
We dont, then, become Holden, but we abide by the terms of the world he narrates to us, agreeing to its provisions for at least the duration of our reading. We slip free from our most burdensome layer of contingent identity in order to experience the consciousness of another. This consciousness and its unfolding world are, in turn, the product of the authors consciousness. And as we read, we find that Holdens, or any other characters, world manifests aesthetic wholeness. It means, even if Holdens own life does not appear to. Unconsciously, we attune ourselves to the unitary scheme that underlies the disorder of his displayed emotions. This scheme, like the white page that underlies the printed words, is the surface that so readily holds our projections. And when we close the book, we return to ourselves. Those projections stream back-- but now they have been tested and forged into new shapes-- and they become elements of our life-wisdom. We do
not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more us; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.
When I think of myself as an adolescent reader, what comes back most strongly is the memory of double-consciousness, the way I moved about as if in active possession of a key to a secret. The secret, I now see, had less to do with whatever specific narrative I was embarked upon, and much more with the knowledge that I had a gateway out of the narrow, baffling, and often threatening world of high school. I had only to picture the book to myself, to know it was there, to think of the fact of it, and the premonition of a secondaryand superiorexistence would open up in me.
What does all of this have to do with self-formation? How does it differ from escape pure and simple? I have to answer with my own readers conviction, my sense that sufficient exposure to the coherentand meaningfulrealities represented in the pages of novels began to lay down the traces of an expectation in me. They awoke a whole set of determinations about my life in the futurethe life I had to have. Even when the awareness of meaning or the sense of fatedness were not to be gathered from my surroundings, I was given the grounds to live as if. Indeed, more than anything else, reading created in me the awareness that life could be lived and known as a unified whole, that it gradually discloses the patterns which make its meaning. That awareness, I admit, gets harder and harder to sustain with the passing of timelife feels less concentrated as one grows away from the idealism of adolescencebut I would not dream of surrendering it. Without that notion, that faith, that sense of a resolution toward which the self is at every point tending, the events of the many days would be like colored beads that have been robbed of their string.