On reading

BB had this quote from an interview with author Zadie Smith on KCRW:

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.”

It’s interesting because the comics event at the Goethe Institut in Glasow which I transcribed for the FPI blog recently also had several views expressed, that reading (books or graphic novels) is like sitting with a sheet of music. Unlike a film where you are presented with an entire piece – words, music, visuals etc – a book or comic is like an artist giving you the sheet music of their work, bringing the reader into the actual creation process, their mind, their experiences, their imagination taking those notes to complete the work in a way unique to that reader.

It’s something I agree with – literature (be it prose fiction, non fiction or the sequential art of comics) in incredibly stimulating to the mind and imagination, a process of interaction between artist and reader in a beautifully intimate dance of fancy and fantasy, symbolism, emotion and magic. However, although the process is not as powerful as it is with books and graphic novels, I don’t totally accept that viewing other media like film and television is a completely passive experience. This is a model, often referred to in media studies as the hypodermic needle model, where we the audience are passive receivers being drip fed exactly what the makers want. It’s a model rubbished many decades ago (if it were true all propaganda would work and we’d be brainwashed, never disagreeing with authorities; similarly all advertising would work where patently it does not).

Watching a good movie, like the recent Prestige, is for me almost like reading a good book where I feel the artist has pushed me, forcing me to think about the work; I can feel elements of the work swirling around my brain for days afterwards, still considering image, motifs, narrative structure. Watching a TV programme like Attenborough’s Planet Earth sparks all sorts of secondary thoughts and images in my brain. Of course there are some TV and films you do just slump there and let them wash over you; sometimes that is actually what you want, similarly some books are also enjoyable pulp, but most people do think about work, even at a low level different people will decode any text in their own way, not always with the ‘preferred reading’ of the maker.

Ultimately any good art – books, comics, film, paintings, dance, music – will stimulate your imagination; that’s probably why I’ve been a heavy reader of books and comics since before I was old enough to go to school and, if anything, my reading has increased my skills at reading movies and other texts simply because I have accrued more tools to employ (sometimes without thinking about it). There is nothing wrong with being entertained – we all want and need that – but entertainment which makes you think is something precious; books do still have the strongest edge in this field and it may be one reason why, in a multimedia age of film, TV, radio, web and more the book continues to be an object which many people ascribe a special respect and love for.