Thursday, February 25, 2010

The pleasures of insufficiency...

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Suggested by Janet: I’ve seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:

“To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.”

To what extent does this describe you?

To travel to another place (or time) is certainly one kind of volitional reading experience. When I conducted an informal research project (1, 2) on susceptibility to the reading experience, the sense of being transported away from the place we're in or to another place, was a commonly reported occurrence in the 92 respondents who participated, so one might even say that it is more than merely metaphoric. I do sometimes specifically read to go elsewhere, i.e. to escape, however I can also read to go more deeply towards myself. I would consider that a travel of sorts, but not a move away. I also read volitionally for information, and when I do I feel rather that I am holding my place in the present by seeking a specific piece of information referent to it. I may go briefly to another place, but with one eye fixed firmly on my current location. I'm reading to come back when the information is gained. It's like beginning to go through the wardrobe to Narnia, but constantly looking back and seeing the coats.

As for the second part of the question, I would answer yes. To seek the world of a book is to at some level admit the insufficiency of your current place and time, but not necessarily admit its wholesale failure. I read for new experience and new information and insomuch as I do that, I must be considering my current fund of information or my current experience less than perfectly pleasing. I know we supposedly seek pleasure and avoid danger on a very basic level, but I think of complacency as a dirty word. I want new experiences - set in fiction or as memoir, biography or travelogue - I crave to know more about the states and actions of other people, other places, and other times. I want new recipes, new scuttlebutt about Stalin, a new way of thinking about the impact of World War I, new information about how the brain works, new insight into a favorite artist's process (and a picture of their work space) and a new story about some attorney who contracts a disease that forces him to walk endlessly forward. I want the frame they provide to open up the way I experience my own life or to reinvigorate what I think I already know. I want after reading to see greener greens. I want my wine to taste better. I want to enrich the context that is my life, and to the extent that I crave that, I admit its current insufficiency. That's not to say that I'm eternally miserable, only that I know that I don't know everything and that its worth finding out more. And inherent to that ritual of going out from this place to new places via books (and other means like experience of other arts, or actual travel) is the search for new books, their acquisition, and the pleasant anticipation of reading them from this place of comfort. I enjoy that pleasure every day, which is to say that being in this place of insufficiency is not endless pain, even if I live in longing. If I'm honest about it, it will never be sufficient and that insufficiency is, in itself, a kind of pleasure.


Lori said...

You had alot to say on the matter. Here's Mine

Janet said...

Great answer. I couldn't agree more with this statement:
"To seek the world of a book is to at some level admit the insufficiency of your current place and time, but not necessarily admit its wholesale failure."

Jennifer said...

Very well thought out. Mine:

Barbara said...

this quote has got people thinking and discussing -- that's what books do!

Here's my answer (short and sweet!)

juhi said...

oh my - i love your answer. I feel like saying, THIS is why I love books so incredibly much. glad you wrote this & shared it!