I vividly remember the trips to the library I took as a child. I went one time a week, every week. From the moment I walked out of those doors, I couldn’t wait to walk back in. While my peers were glued to the computer screen or browsing the movie selections, I was mesmerized by the myriad of books before me. And I could never pick just a few. I wanted to come home with stacks and stacks of books; I wanted so many that it would be impossible for me to read them all before I returned the following week. So, I would sit down in one of the private study cubicles with my piles and read a few, perusing and browsing until I narrowed down my choices for that week. I always picked a variety of books, too. I had some children’s “how-to” book, some fiction, a few non-fiction, and occasionally a scholastic book about history or science. After I had painstakingly decided on the few that I wanted to take, I marched up to the desk, proudly handing the librarian my library card. After we finally left, I couldn’t even wait to get home to read them; I began reading in the car on the way home.
Looking back at my experiences at the library, I began to realize what reading meant to me. I loved sitting alone, getting lost in a world that someone else had created for me. I also couldn’t wait to learn new things. I read voraciously, like at any second, someone would tell me that I could never again glance at the written word. The feeling I have while reading is described as the ‘reading state’ in the Gutenberg Elegies. “In this state, when all is clear and right, I feel a connectedness that cannot be duplicated…and inside limberness…being in accord with time…” (Birkerts, 83-84). This accurately describes a real reading experience, what I yearned for as a child. As I got older, I read less and was less enthused by books; the ‘reading experience’ was more difficult to encounter.
I experienced that sense of connectedness when I recently borrowed a book called Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. I wasn’t sure what to think of the book at first; I hadn’t previously heard of the author and I didn’t think I wanted to read something that was called a “gospel”, even if it was according to a guy named Biff. I read it anyway, thinking that all books deserve a chance. After the first few lines, I became incredibly engrossed. The characters and plot commanded my attention. I needed to know what was going to happen next. It was also side-splittingly funny; I couldn’t help but to laugh out loud at scenes and jokes in the book. After a few times of bursting into giggles, my sister interrupted me, asking what was so funny. I tried to explain that it was the book, but she couldn’t fathom having such a reaction to the printed word. After I finished it, I began again a few days later. The second time around, I enjoyed it more than the first. Not only did I laugh just as hard at the same jokes, but I also began to see the little life lessons and nuggets of wisdom hidden within the anecdotes.
Not only did I enjoy the story but I learned something from it. I blurred the lines between what was really occurring around me and what was occurring in the book. I was so focused on the story that I was oblivious to the world around me. I was in the ‘reading state’.
Up to this point in my academic career, I have read countless pieces of literature. My classmates and I were given a book and asked to read a certain number of chapters by a certain date. In other words, we had a deadline by which we had to read. We were also asked to complete assignments and discuss the book. When I read literature as a student, I never found myself in the ‘reading state’. In fact, I rarely ever liked the book, even if was of a genre or style that I favored.
I remember when I was asked to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for an English class; it turned out to be one of the worst “reading” experiences that I can recall. The teacher gave us some background on the novel: it was one of the best ever written, it was very scandalous when it was published, and the author was known for trying to find just the right word. After I heard these things, I was eager to start reading. I opened the book ready to get lost in the story. Right away, I was discouraged by his style. I didn’t like the surplus of needless details. Fairly quickly, I realized that I was reading the words but I was not reading the story. In other words, I was not engaged in what was going on. I couldn’t follow the plot, let alone appreciate the nuances of his writer’s craft. Before long, I was forced to read out loud so that my mind could comprehend the words. I finished it but it felt like it took me a lifetime. I concluded that it was the worst “reading” experiences.
When referring to my experience with Madame Bovary, I mentioned that I “read” the book. I use the quotations because it does not fit what I think is reading. I was neither engaged nor interested. In fact, I was the complete opposite of engrossed; I was apathetic and indifferent. I completely lacked focus and I got nothing out of the experience (other than I should never read anything else written by Flaubert). Reflecting upon this incident, I realize that one of the key things that turned me away from the book was the social aspect. I was forced to read a book that was assigned to me on a timeline that someone else gave me. I was also forced to discuss with my classmates. While I understand why this may be valuable for some reasons, it takes away from the experience itself.
All in all, reading should be private; it is meant to be a closed, limited interaction. It is a way to learn and exercise the imagination. It passes along stories, taking the place of the oral narrative. When one truly reads, they are engaged, focused, and interested. Real reading is when you are so immersed in the book that you feel like the action is occurring around you; it feels more like watching a movie. In other words, it is when you reach Birkerts’ so-called ‘reading state’. Reading is an important pursuit and a genuine reading experience is something that everyone should enjoy.