Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What is special about reading?

Further to Peter Carey's Pure Pleasure, Carey's list of the most pleasurable books to read. In his introduction, Carey has some interesting things to say in, Why Read? A Polemical Introduction

What is special, oddly enough, is the result of an imperfection in the medium books use by comparison with the medium of film or television. Pictures of the sort relayed by film or television are an almost perfect medium, because they look like what they represent. Printed words do not. They are just black marks on paper. Before they can represent anything, they have to be deciphered by a skilled practitioner. Although accustomed readers do it instantaneously, translating printed words into mental images is an amazingly complex operation. It involves a kind of imaginative power different from anything required by other mental processes. If reading dies out, this power will disappear - and the results are incalculable. For reading and civilization have grown together, and we do not know whether one can survive without the other. The imaginative power reading uniquely demands is clearly linked, psychologically, with a capacity for individual judgement and with the ability to empathize with other people. Without reading, these faculties may atrophy. The translation of print into mental images also makes reading more creative than contact with other media, for no book or page is quite the same for any two readers. I do not mean by this that the reader is really the "author" of the text - as it used to be fashionable for critical theorists to pretend - any more than a pianist playing Chopin is Chopin. But a reader, like a pianist, is engaged in an intense creative operation. If you are used to it, you will notice the effort it takes only when you leave off. Put your book aside and switch on the television and the sense of relaxation is instant. That is because a large part of your mind has stopped working. The pictures beam straight into your brain. No input from you is needed. What this means is that a democracy composed largely of television-watchers is mindless compared to a democracy composed largely of readers. Ours changed from the latter to the former in the second half of the twentieth century.

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