Reading Literature: A Wild Exorcism of Ourselves

When you buy a book, what exactly do you own? Do you own the words on the page? No, these are the author’s, or, in the event of the author’s death, the publisher’s. What about the actual book in your hand? Great, you own some paper, a load of squiggly lines, and a Waterstones receipt. Do you own the right to read it? Yeah, as much as when you walk the corridors of the Louvre and delight yourself with the right to look at its paintings. You don’t own the Mona Lisa, you borrow it from the institution that houses it; like a Blockbusters for clever people. What’s the difference between the walls of the Louvre that house these works of art, and the covers and bindings of books? You can’t festoon the paper of a book with your ownership any more than you can carve your infinitesimal etchings into a work of art; it seems almost arrogant to try. Why then do we continue with this vainglorious delusion? If literature is art, why don’t we afford Robinson Crusoe, that brave Ikea manual that believed it could make a name for itself, with the same amount of respectful distance we afford to Guernica?

The act of purchasing and owning a book seems to be pure aporia. Regardless, we view our books with a slaveowner’s eyes, they sit in our cabinets (or strewn across the floors of our room, with our chunkier tomes tripping us on our way to the toilet) undoubtedly and rightly ours.

Interpreting literature seems to operate in the darker realm of culture because of this. We fumble messily through books, stripping them of their glory, trivialising their grandeur. We do a great violence to books that we spare the rest of culture from: to read, it appears, is to rape. That’s enough mystification and trite metaphors for one blog I think, and it’s all getting a bit morbid so I’ll get to the answer to this, and it comes from the previous owner of one of my anthologies. I brought my poetry anthology second hand from a third year, and I brought it back to my pristine (honest) Maynard House room and leafed through to read my favourite poem, a Yeats poem called Among School Children. I was surprised to see that, above the title, with a neatness that seemed to suggest that no explanation was needed for it, was an underlined cri de coeur “this poem is wanky”. I disagree with this evaluation of Yeats’ poem, but in disagreeing with it, I affirmed it. He read the same poem, in the same book, but he, like me, owned something that saves us from this terrible fate: an opinion. It’s this understanding that allows us to say that we don’t own the book, but instead own the text. The text is the humanity we bring to the book that the book can’t have, by virtue of being a book, and not a person. We all read the same book, but not the same text.

If you are familiar with the works of Jacques Derrida (if you’re not, get familiar, the guy’s amazing) you might have come across this pearl of wisdom, which has been pounded into the realm of platitude by pseudo-intellectuals (guilty as charged) “there is nothing outside the text”. He’s right guys. Among School Children will never change; it’s a cultural artefact, physical, unchanging, immutable, everything a human mind is not. Why then, do we study English? What is our profit from this endeavour? Because, when you read, you create just as much as when you write. The mind itself is like a palace and not every room is brightly lit and beautiful; there are holes in the floor of the mind. Most people who don’t read never explore these structural flaws and tumble along, leading a life unexamined. Your experience with the text, which is your own, and your own only gives you the light to make these holes magnificently, or grossly incandescent and the ladder to climb down into these holes, holes that you might never really climb out of. A common misconception about reading is that we in some way sit as high priests, with this book in front of us that we “own” finding “meaning” that lives in the text like a daemon, but reading literature is like a wild exorcism of ourselves; the literature in fact owns us far more than we own it.

And that is what makes it so much fun, and is the reason to study English at university. English at Queen Mary is not a stuffy traipse through the canon, that’d be easy, but instead it’s discourse, innovation, challenge. I sometimes listen to my seminar leader, or another student say something, and I feel the new ground crackle and break beneath my feet (or that could be the central line, sometimes I’m not sure). It is sometimes perilous and difficult, but why do the flying wallendas walk the quivering highwire? Because it’s walk that line, or plunge into the deep unmeaning below. Academic life at Queen Mary doesn’t shy away from this difficulty but embraces it, they’re with you every tentative step of the way. You will occasionally stumble, but Queen Mary cultivates an attitude that we do what we do not because it is easy but because it is hard.

But what Queen Mary does best is give you the tools to create your own texts, to actually own a fragment of the books that you buy in a way that passive reading cannot. They teach you to respect books as works of art, and to respect your relationship with them. My favourite line from Among School Children is “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” because it’s a beautiful illustration of the process of the endeavour of English students, which is that the book is the dance, we, in creating texts, are dancers. I’m proud of Queen Mary for letting us dance.