In Praise of Readers

by on Monday, 18 March 2013 Comments

This essay was initially inspired by Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness". It was gratifying, upon reading it, to realize that I had been spending my (too little) leisure time in ways that he might have approved. While I find Russell's essay illuminating, I am not worried about repeating his thinking though, because the distance between my mind and that of a great philosopher remains insurmountable. My praise does not involve a concept, however tangible, but a familiar figure, the reader.

Let us celebrate the readers in us, who chose to read the books that to some extent raised us and shaped what we have become. The books we choose show us alternative ways of thinking and life in distant lands, different from the immediate surroundings where we happen to be confined. They provide opportunities for us to exercise our freedom and to follow the path we otherwise might not have imagined, beyond what is obviously within our reach. It is readers who grant true existence to books, whose meanings remain in virtual state, waiting to be activated and constantly renewed. By readers I mean those who give their books undivided attention, the gift of attentiveness, and who enter a book with the willingness for dialogue, communion and transformation. Such readers may be in the process of becoming an "endangered species" in a world where an abundance of distractions compete for our attention. We are always in danger of losing the readers in us, because temptations lurk everywhere, even, or perhaps more so, for those of us who apparently chose reading as part of our profession: reading for summaries, in order to select elements to fit a pre-established theoretic framework, reading with little joy but the pressure of publishing... For several years I did not have time to read any new books unrelated to my research projects, and quite a few colleagues, reputable scholars in my field, made the same confession. It then dawned on me: it is less important for me to study an author's marginal notes than to read the books that he would have enjoyed had he been my contemporary.

Books worthy of our attention may require more than one reading in order for us to appreciate its value, as we grow with each of our re-readings. Over the years, the books that I reread have taken on the role of friends who accompany me in my meandering trajectory. One such example is Flaubert's Education sentimentale. When I first read it, as a teenager avid for any books I could get hold of, in a Chinese translation, I was struck by the beautiful and moving image of Marie Arnoux but rejected Frédéric Moreau as a feeble, indecisive and useless person, and to some degree, this novel as well. In my subsequent reading, enriched by years of learning French language and literature at Peking University, as I gained knowledge on its literary history and acquired its tastes, and coupled with my own experience and observations in the world of emotions, I came to appreciate the truthfulness and complexity of feelings as expressed in Flaubert's language. Later, when I spent a year in Paris through an exchange program between Boston College and the École Normale Supérieure, my familiarity with the city helped bring to life numerous scenes in the novel that previously I had only imagined, making me more sensitive to individuals' fate through historical changes, complexity of their particular situations, and their solitude facing the inevitable passage and damage of time.

Reading nourishes writing. It is through intimate knowledge of tradition that we can create something truly innovative. A young man once told me that he would like to be a writer. When I found out that the last book he read was a required one from his high school, I encouraged him not to write immediately, but first to read. Given the abundance of book productions, the world would be a better place with one more reader and one fewer writer, who, like the spider from Jonathan Swift's essay, weaves elaborate yet fragile webs out of thin air. The bee would be a more fitting metaphor for a writer who produces tasty honey with a fertile mind nourished by numerous flowers encountered through his wandering journey. On the other hand, in the bee's fanciful flight may lack gravity or pain (except what it inflicts on other creatures who accidentally come into contact), an often necessary creative dimension. The silkworm, a frequently adopted metaphor in Chinese literature, can complement the bee's shortcoming. Its fidelity is exemplary: feeding on a single substance, mulberry leaves, and producing, with the dedication of its entire being, a unique cocoon for silk. If we could somehow imagine a strange animal which is partly a bee and partly a silkworm, it could make an appropriate metaphor for a great writer.

Readers not only fulfill the meaning of existing texts, they can be part of the creative process as well. Few authors write without readers in their mind and even those completely disillusioned against their contemporaries place their hope in posterity, readers to come. In some cases, a writer probably would not have created a work without the existence of a special reader; this may be true for all creative works such as music and painting. A Chinese legend illuminates such a rare bond: Bo Ya, a consummate player of Guqin, an ancient seven-stringed music instrument, had a privileged listener, Zhong Ziqi, who perfectly understood his music, his mind and his heart. When Zhong passed away, Bo Ya broke his instrument in distress and ceased to play music for the rest of his life. In Chinese tradition, this legend is typically used to illustrate one's faithfulness to a rare friend who truly knows his mind (zhiyin), while some might reproach him for having such an exclusive taste that only one person was able to fully appreciate him. There is, however, the possibility that even if he had tried, Bo Ya simply would not have been able to play the instrument at the same artistic level he had attained in the company of his soul mate. Bo Ya, therefore, was not only faithful to his friend, but also to the idea of art that he chose to uphold. Considering that he must have played his instrument for many years prior to his encounter with Zhong, his ultimate renouncement also reveals the intensity of pain associated with an irreplaceable loss. The reader can thus be a metaphor for the selective person whose intelligence, receptiveness and resonance become instrumental in the creative process. To the extent that each of us can be viewed as a "work in progress", we can all benefit from the "reader" whose presence allows us to fully discover and achieve the unique potential in our being. The reader, in this sense, is not a passive recipient, but an inspirational partner, and people can be mutual readers to each other.

There are ways for the act of reading to become a collective event shared by many readers. Blois, France, a beautiful historical city by the Loire River and my home away from home, hosts an annual literary prize awarded to a first French novel published in France, the Prix Roblès. Reading committees are formed throughout Blois, the department of Loir-et-Cher, and worldwide, currently including Europe, Africa, North and South America, perhaps one day Asia as well? From March to the Award Ceremony, usually held in June, readers choose a winner out of 5 or 6 books selected as finalists by a committee composed of librarians in conjunction with the Académie Goncourt. There are two or three public forums led by literary critics where foreign committees can participate by sending their comments. Each committee has only one vote, and therefore needs to hold discussions and arrive at a consensus. The actual voting, full of suspense, is held in the morning of the award ceremony, a televised event followed by book signing. Since Prix Roblès takes place during my annual stay in Blois, I have witnessed how the Blésois were engaged in the selection process, caring deeply about its outcome and showing up enthusiastically at the Award Ceremony and the Book Signing. This year, I finally decided to take the time to form a committee with francophone colleagues at my university. At the time I write this essay, I am waiting for the books to arrive at my home across the ocean, mountains and rivers. I look forward to this shared reading experience, anticipating it to generate echoes that amplify the joy felt by readers in Blois and all over the world, each in our own corner.

Illustration by Bengua

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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