Occasionally a friend will call me at work and ask if I want to meet for coffee when I get off, to chat for a bit. I like to meet when I can, because we don’t see one another as often as I’d like, and he provides me with conversations of such great interest that I hardly know anyone who could do the same. No one else I know sends me lines of poetry to ask what I think of them.
So this past Monday we met, and for half the time we were together, we discussed Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” and different performances of it. I admit it was my cultured friend who actually knew of various performances—Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A question that came up in our discussion was whether an audience in a country with a good social welfare system could fully appreciate the play. If people knew they could survive if they lost their jobs, could they properly understand the anxiety of the salesman in the play? He lives at a time in America where he will be destitute if he loses his job, with no social system to support him.
Audiences necessarily bring their background and understanding of the world to their experience of art. From the idea of what people bring to an experience, I went on to make the point to my friend that in writing (which of course I’ve thought more about) readers bring so much to the reading that in fact they help to create the text.
That may sound radical to you, but I’ll illustrate it by starting with something excessively simple. Suppose you see a text, but you don’t know the writing system (Russian: я люблю тебя), or perhaps you know the writing system, but don’t know the language (Polish: wszystkiego najlepszego), or you know the alphabet and the language, but the subject matter is foreign (epigenetics discussion: highly methylated areas tend to be less transcriptionally active).
My point is that if the reader doesn’t know how to interpret the symbols in the writing, turn them into meaningful words and sentences, and then make sense of the sentences, whatever the writer wrote lies there incomprehensible. No piece of writing says anything. It’s just a piece of paper with ink on it (or a screen with pixels). When anything happens, it happens inside the mind of the reader.
I’ve thought about this so often that I don’t know whether its a difficult idea to really understand, or whether it’s quickly obvious. It seems to me that many people consider writing to have a definite, obvious meaning, and that meaning is just there because—look—it’s written down.
It’s written down, like the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or the Constitution, or even Hemingway. It says what it says. Isn’t this what most people would think? Is it what you think? So maybe my point is not so simple, even though it’s true.
Of course reading is so much more than merely knowing the words. Let’s look at the first sentence of the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” And let’s propose that this is rather straightforward in meaning: it gives a man’s position lying on the ground in a forest, it gives his physical position, and it gives some of the natural setting, with the wind blowing.
Now let’s propose two readers, one who grew up in pine forests, and another who has never even seen a pine needle. One of them knows the smell of such a forest, has seen it the daytime with sunlight coming down through the trees, knows how the pine needles fall down from the trees, knows the very slight crackle when you walk across them, and knows the sharp way they feel when you lie on them. The second reader doesn’t know any of this.
Surely these two readers will have extremely different reactions to the opening sentence of this novel. For the first reader, the sentence may even evoke personal emotional memories, which become part of that reader’s experience of reading. The second reader is getting only a very bare physical description from the sentence, with no feeling. Already in the first sentence, two different readers will experience the book in dramatically different ways.
With what readers bring to the reading, they turn a lifeless piece of paper into thoughts and feelings inside their own minds. Readers are helping to create the text, and no writer can control that.