Well, the grave title may raise expectations this post will not live up to. You’re in for a disappointment if you expect a thoroughly researched, art historical scholarly article on the iconography of reading. (1) But perhaps you’ll bear with my choice of title if it had you fondly envisioning images of people reading. Because that’s exactly what I want to celebrate in this post – those truly heartening sights of people reading, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them.
We’re obviously not talking here about people perusing papers or magazines – no, it must be a book, and the reader must be absorbed in it, forgetting his surroundings, and thus offering the sight of a rapt stillness in the middle of whirling activity.
Over the course of many years I have built a valued imaginary collection of ‘vignettes’ of people reading in the midst of turmoil. Images I found in stations or on the street, as well as images encountered in books or in paintings. Somehow these images serve as edifying examples, as talismans reminding me of what I value.
Precious reminders, since (terrible confession!) I can be such a sloppy reader – all too easily distracted, not only by the claims of the ‘real’ world, but also by my own limitless capacity for brooding (2).
Therefore I cherish these ‘reading icons’, those inspiring examples humbly asserting the autonomy of the reading self. (4)
Only last Saturday (eaten by existential job-stress related to ongoing financial meltdown) I was cheered by the sight of this middle aged black man queuing in front of me at a busy sandwich bar in the station. He obviously had a cold, witness his coughing and the thick red scarf he wore. And he was holding a book, and reading, ah so intently and with such relish …. Oblivious to the bleary neon lights, to the shouting, to the crushing people around him.
Or another favorite image: once upon a sunny but still chilly spring day, in a busy but rather poor neighborhood in Brussels. This old, slender man was sitting on a bench, wrapped up in a thick coat (looking rather threadbare), wearing fingerless gloves. And he was reading, utterly absorbed in his book, only every once in a while looking up pensively to the sun.
And then this description of Hannah Arendt I encountered in some book (have completely forgotten where). The passage described how in the midst of fearful chaotic refugee scenes in France, Arendt was sitting under a tree, reading, engrossed in a book.
No doubt I find these images so uplifting & soothing because they testify of a certain human dignity that cannot be suppressed by even the most adverse worldly circumstances. It’s the kind of hope needed by the sort of people to whom neither religious consolations nor hedonist oblivion can offer shelter . It’s in fact your typical, naïve mind-over-matter hope (5).
Escapism for humanists…. (6)
But no escaping from the footnotes!
(1) actually, I’m unrepentant. This is the title I wanted, precisely because of its overtones of scholarship in the word “iconography” and precisely because of its association with my favorite art historian Erwin Panofsky. And for those who do want to read some solid art historical stuff, I can highly recommend this article by Elisabeth Losh I stumbled upon while checking the use of the expression “the iconography of reading” (the term yields only 15 Google hits) – it ‘s a wonderful exploration of the imagery of Annunciations : women between a book and an angel. The sheer title!!! “Between the Angel and the Book: The Female Reading Subject of Early Modern Flemish Annunciation Painting”
(2) The unique characteristic of reading is that, brain-processing- wise, it uses up relatively little brain-volume and leaves still ample brainpower for the reader to reflect on what he reads, to “integrate more of her own thoughts and feelings into her [reading] experience “ . (this comes from a fascinating article that really deserves its own footnote 3). But alas, the neurasthenic reader may abuse this extra available brainpower to keep going a simultaneous stream of nagging brooding & worrying.
(3) Caleb Crain's article in the New Yorker Dec 2007 – Mary-Anne Wolf “Proust & The Squid” - it’s about brain-science backing another Proustian intuition: ““to receive a communications with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately”
(4) “attention is another form of freedom”, as A. wrote in a comment to her post. To rid oneself of all pettiness, of all distractions and to choose to concentrate on a sight, or on a thought is indeed a supreme assertion of the freedom and the autonomy of the self as a perceiving and thinking subject . No mere compulsive reaction to stimuli, but chosen attention. It feels as an empowerment of the self – this kind of attention that may well be an instance of the Kantian “ free play of the imagination and the understanding” (= the aesthetic experience). And yes, whenever I’m helplessly at the mercy of worries & dread, the best remedy to get out of that rut is to go to a museum and to concentrate fully and totally on a painting.
(5) It’s such a great tradition, that of the (rightly) deeply pessimistic philosophers living in troubled times, hoping to re-assert by mere thought their dignity vàv the crushing material circumstances they cannot master – like good old Boethius writing “with all the integrity & dignity he could muster” in the face of tyranny and death. & not to forget good old Pascal who wrote “l’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Alors toute notre dignité consiste en la pensée »
(6) Escapism = “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine”. Obviously I here refer to escapism-with-dignity (‘otium cum dignitate’), with the reader actively imagining and reflecting. To be distinguished from escapism-through-entertainment, which while it lasts can make you forget yourself and your worries (no mean achievement!) but which will not have shored you up, neither your self’s autonomy nor its confidence when you have to return to the scary world outside.