A work of imaginative literature often serves to erase the room it was meant to open and to open another room entirely. This is a fruitful place for its own sake; nothing in the reader in that moment is accomplished at all. There is no use function to literature then; there is behavior, the extraction of a parallel time—a metaphysical space—from a given piece of the day. Much of our reading happens in this space.
In this essay I intend to say something completely obvious by way of a reminder: the reader is the only “place” that matters, and each of us is a different reader at different times in life and even at different times of the day or week. By extension we are different readers by the generation and by the epoch. There is, given the temporal quality of reading and using the ways we really read as evidence, no right way to read. There are only types of reading.
I am a former prison librarian, and I have been deprived of my freedom for extended periods of time under other circumstances. The reading of imaginative literature takes on a different cast when you can’t leave the place you’re in. This is why questions of the right way to read imaginative literature and the moral duty of the reader in a civil society strike me as bizarre. All reading happens in metaphysical space first, and there are as many types of reading as there are people who can read.
Thus, it is the chaos of reading I’d like to talk about here—and by extension its liminality—and its inherent strangeness—for each and every one of us, both in and out of community.
Reading imaginative literature at work while work hangs over your head, reading while violence happens all around, reading alone in the dark.
By “types of reading” I’m talking about what goes on in the mind—the state of mind, the state of being—while reading, presented here without judgement or comment. There is “flight-of-fancy” reading, inattentive reading, reading with a divided mind, nostalgic reading, touristic reading, professional reading, professorial reading, reading without any memory of what you’ve read, reading in order to train the mind to be able to read again, compulsive reading, analytical, critical, interrogative, change-making reading, hermeneutic, daydream reading, close reading, reading for information, exasperated, enraged and outraged reading and hundreds more. One type of reading does not preclude a switch in the next instant to another type of reading. Many happen at the same time.
The conditions under which we read often lead to a specific type of reading. There is reading when drunk or high. Reading on the subway or the bus. Reading in a room full of people who are talking, reading while YouTube plays in the background. Reading imaginative literature at work while work hangs over your head, reading while violence happens all around, reading alone in the dark. I’m not talking about our reasons for reading nor our reading choices but rather what goes on in what we used to call “the mind” and now call, “the brain.” The place—if it exists—beyond the CT, MRI and PET scan. Our reading, like our lives, is messy.
One day, in late morning I was pulling a cart between living units at one of the more notorious prisons—a level IV facility out on the plains—at which I worked. Open movement had ended, and the yard was empty: a vast space of green grass triangles cut by concrete walks in paleolithic gray. The paksat radio crackled: “Control, Boiler House.” “Control, go.” “One staff from the Boiler House to the maintenance shed.” “10-4. Control clear, fifteen-thirty-five.”
I was walking in front of two safe-fire flower beds, straggled with marigolds. I had just passed Control on my way to Echo Unit to collect books when a cheerful voice said, “Hello! Excuse me!”
I turned around, and the yard was utterly empty. Delta Unit was a tiny door two hundred meters away, across that vast yard all enclosed by walls made of the buildings themselves all of which opened inward. “Up here!” the voice said. Standing on the roof directly overhead was an officer with a scoped AR-15—the sergeant posted at Tower Two, a guard shack on the roof overlooking the yard. “Can I return my library book?” he said. He had a bright voice, the voice of a young man with the world by the ass. He held a mass market paperback. I said, “Sure,” and he gently released the book. The thing dropped like a stone at first, then spread its pages, landing with a thump in the grass. “Thanks!” he said, and I put it in my cart and continued on to Echo Unit.
But I was struck. I never would have pictured the officer on Tower Two reading, but it makes sense. He had nothing to do all shift except wait for movement and respond to hourly checks on the radio, reporting airplanes, etc. in a state of boredom that, given his job with the rifle, must have amounted to a kind of luxury. In the event of violence during controlled movement, men marching in green lines, he was tasked with firing a single warning shot into the safe fire marigolds and then shooting, center-mass, any person who hadn’t dropped to his belly.
All day, with nothing to do, then radio checks and movement when he would have to be vigilant, then nothing. And he would read up there through his mirror shades, tracking the words with a mind stitched by radio traffic, a mind in three places or more at once, the Tower Two shack, the metaphysical space of the radio calls and the space of the novel itself. Perhaps he was risking his job, but more likely, he had permission to read Dan Simmons’s Endymion while waiting to shoot someone.
Henry James, who never lacked for metaphors of art and whose lucidity begs a full quotation, presents a writer at a window in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady:
The house of fiction has in short not one window but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which, has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the presence of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, ensuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine…But they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher—without in other words the consciousness of the artist.
The statement is true on the other side of the glass. We have only to replace “artist” with “reader” to see the similarities. What can be said about a writer is true also of a reader. The glass turns as on a vast dial like a revolving door and readers and writers find themselves standing on the same side. There is no need for separation. This is because reading is a form of translation; and translation is writing, what Walter Benjamin calls “a mode” of literature, a creative act in and of itself and an instance of pure language, which exists in and of itself. The work of art changes, and it changes yet again, as many times as there are readers who encounter it.
The reader is the real writer—of their individual translation of a work—and the writer merely the first reader of the book they have written. Granted, the writer is an expert reader, one demonstrably familiar—unto nausea—with their particular work, a biased reader. As we all are. Yet the expertise of the writer has its limits in the silence imposed on the writer—and upon all of their readers—by the passage of time.
He was never getting out of prison, and so he was going to have to build the cabin entirely in his mind.
When I worked at one of the minimum centers for men, I recall a man who wanted to build a cabin. Through interlibrary loan (ILL) I ordered every cabin book that was available. Timber Framing, Timber Framing for the Rest of Us, The Log Cabin, Classic Cracker and many more. Talking about cabins, the man would turn red with anger, holding a finger in the air. He didn’t want to build “rustic junk.” He wanted to fashion a real, lasting structure, a timber frame in the careful way of the past.
The thing is, he was in for involuntary manslaughter, the killing of a family of four while driving blackout drunk. He had no memory of that night at all. There was an opening into oblivion, a gap. It was as if the night had never happened. The crash was an event he did and did not experience. Now he was in his late sixties, gray hair in a pony tail, his scarred nose with the deep pocks and fissures of a former drinker, which were pink with health. He was never getting out of prison, and so he was going to have to build the cabin entirely in his mind.
There was a woman when I worked at a women’s facility who would request photocopies from books available in the library for cards she was making for her little boy. She would find picture books on the shelves and mark the pages and fill out the copy request form usually asking for a blow-up of some detail. From the copies she would cut out airplanes, Power Rangers and color some of them while leaving others uncolored for him to do when he received the card so that they could be coloring together.
When she talked about her son, her face would glow and her hands clasp in front of her, her eyes looking over the top of your head the way actors in Broadway musicals pause and look up into the lights before a song, as if the boy lived in the sky. I couldn’t help thinking two things: her emotion was real but also performative. Something was off about the situation, and I couldn’t figure out what.
Copies were fifteen cents each and the cost came off her “books,” or “Inmate Account.” She had no financial support in prison, so she had to earn money at her job as a housekeeper cleaning staff areas. She made forty two cents a day. A photocopy run would cost her over a day’s labor. To boot, she would have to cover the cost of the envelope and stamps and the pen to write the letter.
After about the third copy run I learned that the woman had victimized her boy. She wasn’t allowed any contact with him, none whatsoever. The photocopies and cards were a hope and a delusion. She would put them in the mail, the Mailroom would flag them. They would never leave the prison. The kid would never see them. She knew this and didn’t know, at the same time.
Both the man and the woman were reading nonfiction as imaginative literature. To survive an intolerable situation.
Jung has it differently. He describes the artwork as a virus with agency, a “living being that uses man only as a nutrient medium” for the purpose of its hidden fulfillment. I’m saying the reader has the agency and reading itself is the virus within each and every one of us. To bridge the gap between these two notions, the work of art in the translation of its reading is both powerless and powerful within the reality of the reader: both at the same time.
This is because, despite the fact that the words stutter in a certain order, a book is not a fixed reality in our time or in any other. A book, even a volume dusty in the public domain, is an ongoing process as, according to the great Indian librarian and theorist, S.R. Ranganathan, in his fifth law of library science, a “library is a growing organism.” We warp the contents in interesting ways. We know this; we forget it each day.
Once on a day off from a job working in a prison for children adjudicated as adults, I was riding the regional bus between cities to visit friends when I saw a man below reading while driving. It was deep winter and his little car was covered over in frost, a tiny little orange Chevette inside of which was stuffed a very large man. A huge man, I saw, as he drifted in the right lane, slowly pulling ahead so that I could see down into the car. He was completely bundled up in a wool coat, black gloves, fedora crushed against the ceiling and scarf wrapped tightly.
The windows were fogged up: he had no heater in there. He had cleared a tiny hole in the ice, just enough to spy through, edged by white foam and he rode in a dark aquarium, reading a book. His glasses held a similar darkness, like Robert Hayden’s, seemingly made of scaled layers of green glass at the bottom of which was an eye shrunken small. His dashboard hand held a novel open between thumb and pinky. And he drifted past.
I can’t imagine the complexity of attention he must have had to pull that off without dying, but he was managing it then—nor could I imagine the hunger—or the compulsion—he must have felt to know what would happen next on the bridge of the interplanetary freighter, while hurtling at sixty five miles per hour in his car, holding off till the last second the arrival of work.
In my novel, Dioramas, in which dioramas are a stand-in for the forms of metaphysical space discussed here, reading the scenes behind the glass is for Wiggins, the old lecturer, an existential and metaphysical act to which any cluster of ideas, likely or unlikely, tied to the world or untethered from it, might attach. He is searching for answers within a medium—the diorama and its stand-ins—where there are no clear answers.
My dogma is that everything else follows from the experience of reading, which, when we begin our collective talk about literature, we’re forced to ignore and which is untranslatable to begin with. After all, what are we to say after we’ve ridden a roller coaster, kissed someone, been left, run aground, run away? It is precisely the experience that eludes language. At its center is a void we have no choice but to take for granted.
We experience a creeping anxiety when we enter “the space of literature.” We imagine we’d better turn around and re-cross the veil and reenter the world. And no doubt that’s wise: there is much to be done, much that must be done if we are to survive together. In response to this anxiety we make the time spent there, in metaphysical space, count for the time we’re not improving the world. We demand of the vapor world what we feel we must do after we’ve finished and re-crossed the veil. But much of human life is spent in the interstices among worlds, in the metaphysical space of thought—thought space, mind space—and among the types of ambiguity that have nothing to do with the contents of a book read so closely, read in purity, intention and guilt, forgetting the real ways that inattention—mistake, boredom, slippage—in short a normal day there—figure in our reading experience.
While writing Dioramas, during the long years leading up to the completion of a first draft, I had some medical treatments that caused me to lose my short-term, and part of my long-term, memory. I recall returning from the hospital and seeing a stack of paper and running my thumb and stopping to read a paragraph and having no idea what it meant or to what it was connected. I knew I was a writer, but I had no access to the time before. I felt there were some other person—some translator I’d never known—working as a shadow in the background. He was keeping the kind of secret that prickles but never reveals itself but is always in the act of reaching for you.
It is the storm of the mind in response to the storm of language swirling on a dark plain.
The only thing I could figure was to copy the book by hand. I copied it out on foolscap, changing nothing. Afterwards, I still had no notion of what was inside, so I typed the book on an IBM Selectric II, after which some faint glimmers began to come but not enough to continue working. So I copied the entire book a third time, into Word. And although the contents of the book still would not stick, I could at least begin to move toward a second draft, focusing on short scenes—windows opening on imaginary dioramas. But even to this day, although the book is carefully built, I still can’t quite recall what’s inside.
As a librarian I was schooled in the Library Bill of Rights and the Prisoner’s Right to Read, documents that drive collection decisions and library practice both in and out of prison the country-over and that reflect among librarians a certain faith in human beings. I hold to them very tightly. If a certain type of reading is important to you, it is important to me. Even if I can’t see the form your reading takes from the inside, even if I misunderstand, even if I lack the experience, intelligence or the ability to imagine what it really means to you as an insider, or if the reality across the page as the words enter the eye is markedly different from your aspiration, I acknowledge the impossibility of pinning it down. I acknowledge its existence in every human being.
Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage used to press on his eyelids with his fingers to spark hypnogogic flashes which he would animate on 16mm film, frame by frame, 24 frames per second. Twenty-four tiny compositions, done with paint, markers and scratches on a surface the size of a thumbnail, to get one second of film. The patterns he found in the dark were unique in that moment to him. They were an expression of himself and his vision at that place and time, and for him this was the most honest and the most keen representation he could muster: one person and their observation at one place in time both with and against the dominant culture of “seeing” out there in the world.
Similarly, the moveable theater of readership is an unpredictable, utterly unique mind that changes, exits and enters chaos in the act of reading itself, falls off, wanders, comes back, makes shocking connections that may or may not have anything at all to do with the text in hand—may lead to some beauty in life among other people—or, indeed, to some horrible idea of destruction, alone—or may lead nowhere at all. This is not a moral question—what reading can do to improve someone, for example—that is a reason for reading and a type of reading, both. This is true for the simple reason that we are human.
No, it is the storm of the mind in response to the storm of language swirling on a dark plain, its unpredictability, that I would call attention to not because it is good or even better than anything else but because, like the suddenness of Stan Brakhage’s translation of vision in a single place and time, it is closer to reality, to a way of seeing—to the place within which we read—it seems to me—than is a suggestion or a demand to read in certain ways lest we lose, lose our democracy, lose our capacity to focus, drift as a culture into murder, despair, inattention, blindness, into the chaos of a single room losing its mind.
The way one person reads, at the deepest most human level, is different than another person’s. And that is something to stand in awe of rather than to celebrate as some paean to individuality: it just is, as reading merely is, for this short moment of print culture.
Blair Austin is the author of Dioramas, available now from Dzanc Books.