The brain is an organ that carries. It is a history machine, a store of scuff marks, a ball of scar tissue. In our formative years the most sensitive receptors develop, building our perspective of reality. Like scratches on glasses they both frame and obscure our vision of the world. As a child, an abundance of praise for my reading skill folded a reader-yolk into my self-concept batter. Here is where the dependence began.
Through books I hope to read and those I have read I carry the belief that if I maintain this Reader-self then I will not fail in my endeavours. It is a ritual. It is a spell. It is a Faustian bargain. However, when facing Borges’ infinite library of all those books I cannot possibly read, I am grabbed at the throat by my own mortality and ignorance. I look to books to teach me to think as I doubt my reasoning skills. What I learn is undermined by my distrust of my memory and the suspicion that I dilute and simplify what I do consume. I am amylase.
It is only through becoming an encyclopedia, a reference book, a resource myself that any doubts are removed. In those moments I know there is a use for these books and for the time I have devoted to them – more use than the act of reading provides alone. They are social objects. They are removed from use-value and added to the glutinous porridge of social-value. They resist commodity fetishism despite being the saleable output of culture. They are chameleons. They are portals to other humans’ minds while existing as objects of isolated experience.
This weight is lessened by others. Talking to others about what I’ve read is a reassurance: it is the teacher giving me a gold star, a small token of worth. I will try to keep giving where I can, for myself and for others too.
When you decide to read an odd thing happens. You actively agree to spend time with someone who won’t listen to you, who lets you interpret what they say however you wish, exists entirely in the space between your head and the words on the page, and makes you actively isolate yourself from other people. It is not just an individual action but a solitary one. Most other forms of entertainment I can think of have some form of involvement with others. Even if they don’t in one instance of the activity, there is always a potential for others to join. Sports, watching TV or films, going for a walk, going to museums or galleries, playing games, etc, all have an element of sociability to them. Reading, in all forms, is solitary. Forms of communication that use text as their form also seem impersonal. Online messaging, letters, emails, post-it notes on the fridge or dining room table — they are suspicious as no voice is involved. The words can be edited, the writer able to project only those qualities of themselves they wish to. The opposite argument would be that the body or voice are unfortunate results of genetics, impossible for the self to adapt, that the individual’s choice and freedom to project themselves as they wish is revoked, positing the body as some kind of tyrant. The body is a closed-minded bigot, or eugenics fanatic, or dictator.
But this destroys the actuality of the body and attempts to wave away difference in a way that homogenises and reduces the value of uncensored gestures and phrases that occur in the moment, the emergence or becoming of a self in those live exchanges. As each moment gives way to a new articulation of the self — balanced between curated outcomes and emergent articulations — we affirm the existence of body, of the person not enslaved to what they cannot help but be, but the person arising from their attempts to arrest that knowledge and circumstance. When someone says ‘I hate reading out loud’, something I hear often, that is the action which completely embodies this split between bodily-emergence and the curated-intellectual self. This is exacerbated when asked to read aloud something they have written – where their own faltering voice or reading comprehension dispels the illusion provided by their writing – that they can present their self as they wish.
But this is an affirmation of the biases against differing levels of ability and speech. The shame surrounding slower reading or the voice spoken nullifies difference by saying that there is a correct way to speak, or a correct speed at which to speak, and that there is something to be ashamed of if this standard cannot be met. The reality of the body cannot be changed, and so there is a hatred cultivated there for the body’s inability to become what the intellect thinks is proper.
As anyone who has ever spent any time with someone who is self-assured will know that it can be incredibly lonely to be the only person listening to a soliloquy. In a bad situation, with an egotist of the worst sort, you are left feeling non-existent, and want out of the situation as soon as possible, aware of the time and energy being wasted, aware that you could do anything but listen to this person listen to themselves. But in the case of an orator — sat with someone who speaks of things you feel an affinity with — you are engaged, left marvelling at their mind, their Self, their becoming as you project yourself onto them. You do not want to share, suckling their mind for the sweet milk it contains.
Reading is much the same — the joy and tediousness is yours to bear alone. Like a bad friendship, people are scared to give up on books which aren’t for them, aware of the history and anxious not to throw that away. Like friends, authors can change a lot with each encounter. Rereads of the same book or others by the same person often undermine the notion of the intellectual-self—a cool, changeless Stance is nothing in the face of a changing Bodily-self, apt to change its mind or articulate differently with age. The Intellectual self is treated as a brand: always new and improved. Now outputs suggest a conscious-only change in content or style, but the answer lies again in the interplay between bodily-emergence and static-identity. The brain is scar tissue. New experiences recorded in the brain-organ affect its output.