Reading the tea leaves, 2

Thursday, July 14th, 2005

The verb “to read” is an odd expression. The older Germanic tongues treat the word as related to counciling or advising, if we can even backtrack through the present use of the word to a related source. In other senses it points to the act of gathering: gather characters, gather stuff. In Hugh of Saint Victor, this is the act of plucking grapes in the textual vinyard. In the old days, of course, not a lot of people read as we do. Not much existed in letter form to read, and those who did read, such as monks, read outloud, as they still do at the mosque and in church. The teacher knows what she means when she uses the word “read,” while the student probably thinks something else. Lots of people know what they mean by it. When someone says, “I read it in the newspaper,” we know what the guy means. Everyday people read the newspaper and do a pretty good job of it most likely. What do people do when they watch the news and encounter the little ticker that runs at the bottom of the screen? They read it, of course. But do they read it differently than they “watch” the newsperson tell them about the latest cheap trick on Capitol Hill? Of course not, even though both the anchor and the letters are shapes in a square window.

Then again, we could go back and consider other basic issues as they concern reading. To divine is associated with reading in the sence of “reading the entrails” of a chicken or, in the same tradition, reading the spitout of a computer simulated weather forcast. Our local scryers “divine” and “advise” us everyday on the nature of “nature.” Sometimes they nail it, sometimes they don’t. Both the weather person and the hepatoscoper practice “reading” as advisors. Talk about “reading into.”

As a literature teacher, which is truly an odd job (why would someone pay money to read Dante when they could grab a book and hit the Divine Comedy themselves), students often respond to my routines over a text with this response: “Aren’t you reading into this a little much?” Of course, I have a stock response because such a critique is to be expected, even when we deal with just basic maneuvers. The question usually comes from a person who doesn’t want to talk about a work at all (therefore, even the most surface of readings is “too deep”), has lots of other things weighing on them, is unfamilar with basic reading techniques, is unfamilar with texts in general (therefore would respond to any technique impatiently [in my experience this is the most common case]), or sees alternative readings as a competition at which they keep losing. What some students learn is that reading “can become” an act of demystification and journey (although it doesn’t have to be), rather than simply as a way of finding the door out or getting to the last page. The film scholar and the director know that form is critical to keeping an audience’s attention. The audience of a film may not know the form objectively but they are able to “recognize” the story; they can reform it as they watch. Without the form, the screen wouldn’t make sense. Imagine a detective program that began with a crime but refused to solve it. The thousand of years of practice that people have had with poetry can’t just be thrown off in a text that claims to be poetry. In this case, one would have to call it something else, just as one would have to call the program above by something other than a genre show. Nothing wrong with that, I don’t think. This is not to confuse the question with that oft troubling “Is it art or is it not art” question. To define poetry is often difficult without calling up “sonnet” or uttering “Soto.” In some cases, defining poetry is a waste of time. Those who wish to define should simply write some, drink wine or bottled water, write some more, then go to sleep. In the morning, do it again. But this may all be blather.

What’s the answer to the question above? The answer is not, “I’m not reading into it too much.” The answer is, “Does the Divine Comedy read the same in English as it does in Italian?” My response would be, I have absolutely no idea.

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