If No One Reads a Book, What Does It Say?

children readingTake the word “shoe”. What does that word mean? A shoe goes on the foot and protects it. Unless we’re talking about a cast for a broken foot. That goes on the foot and protects it, but that’s not a shoe. Is a flipflop a shoe? Would you say “shoe” in that case? Or a house slipper, is that a shoe? And what if the shoe comes halfway up the calf, so that we say “boot”, is a boot also a shoe?

Someone is going to say that a house slipper is a shoe, and someone else is going to insist that it’s obviously not, and now, damn them, they’re disagreeing over a plain simple word.

Then let’s take a complete sentence: “As it began to grow dark, she walked across the meadow by the trees.” A reader who has spent a lot of time in nature, seeing the stars come out as it gets dark, may see this sentence as a lovely evocation of tranquility in nature. A different reader who is afraid of the dark, or who has had a frightening experience outside at that time of day, may read the sentence as ominously foreshadowing something bad.

The same sentence, with extremely different meanings, depending on who is reading.

These two examples help to illustrate the fact that there is nothing you read that you don’t help to create. We can show this by going back to a more basic level, starting with the alphabet. Most American readers cannot read the Russian word “ждать”. Reading begins literally with knowing the symbols of the writing system, such as the English alphabet, and—in our minds as we read—we put the symbols together to represent words, then put the words together to make sentences.

Without the reader’s knowledge, the writer can do nothing, as if a text were Russian to an English reader, ничего не будешь понимать. Just a bunch of lines with no meaning. And if there’s an English word we don’t know, say “avuncular”, knowing the the alphabet isn’t enough. From the very beginning—knowing the writing system, knowing the language, knowing the meaning of words—the knowledge of the reader is critical.

So consider a book in English lying on a table. What does the book say? As long as the book is lying there, it says nothing. It’s merely a stack of paper with ink marks, and literally nothing more. In reality, the writing says nothing until a knowledgeable reader interprets the symbols into words and sentences. The meaning happens only in the mind of the reader.

This leads us to a second, rather compelling point from the examples I started with, of people disagreeing over the meaning of a word, or getting completely different ideas from a sentence. What two people have you known in your entire life that you could point to and say “The minds of these two people are absolutely the same on every point?”

None, of course, so we move on. And since the meaning of writing happens only inside the mind of a reader, and since every reader is different—maybe we need to sit down to think about this—then every piece of writing must be at least somewhat different for every person who reads it, and maybe a lot different.

But now wait. So no two people read a paragraph in a novel exactly the same, but what about important things? Does that include the U.S. Constitution? Does it include…the Bible? The Koran? The Torah? How can we use documents as the foundation of society if all people read them differently? It’s a problem, frankly, which we deal with by having judges and religious leaders and sometimes by pretending that we don’t all have different interpretations (even though we really do).

As fiction writers, the same truth applies, that no matter what we do, the text depends on the reader to bring his or her knowledge into the reading. What the writer is thinking about when writing something is certainly not what every reader is thinking about when reading it. This is not a happy fact for a writer, because there is nothing we can do about it, and we have less control than we want. But that’s how it is. With every text, from the label on a soup can to the U.S. Constitution to a novel, every reader is creating part of the meaning.


Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

2 responses to “If No One Reads a Book, What Does It Say?

  1. I’ll say “unkle’ if you stop saying “avuncular.”

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