Friday, May 26, 2017

Creative reading

Everybody recognizes that writing is a creative activity. Colleges even offer courses in creative writing. (This phrase has always seemed redundant to me, like offering courses in creative art.) But what about writing's partner, reading? Isn't reading also a creative activity? The fact that each of us can respond differently to the same work of literature suggests that it is.

Wendy Lesser
Two comments found in my recent reading has furthered my thinking on this subject. First, here is what Wendy Lesser says in Why I Read: "Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters' as well as the author's), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do."

Each reader completes the creation of the author. A book without a reader is like a play without an audience or a masterful painting hidden in a closet. It is the reader who interprets what a book, a poem or a story means, and because interpretations vary, each completed creation comes out differently.

Read different reviews of the same book, something I do frequently on LibraryThing, and it can seem that the reviewers are writing about different books. To them, they are different books, simply because they have responded to them so differently. What seems meaningful to one person will seem meaningless to another. A third person may miss it altogether. That's because, as Lesser puts it, none of us reads in precisely the same way.

In My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul says this about readers and the books they read: "Nobody else has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way." So it is not just a matter of how we respond to a particular book but also what books we have read previously. Our interpretation of one book will influence our interpretation of another. People like Paul and Lesser who have read a great many books are likely to give more sophisticated or creative readings to a new book than someone who has read relatively few books. If you have read one Jane Austen novel, you will feel better equipped to tackle the next one. Readers, like writers, get better with practice.

Creative reading does not just manifest itself in the reading of fiction. If this particular blog post is in any way creative it is because, within a matter of a few days, I read both that line in Lesser's book and that line in Paul's. Either comment on its own (or read months apart) might not have triggered a response in me, other than to write it down on a notecard. But read back to back as they were (perhaps even, as Paul suggests, in an order nobody else has ever read them), I was inspired to write this brief essay on creative reading.

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