As I am tasked with the daunting chore of moving, and by choice using this as an opportunity to clear out and only keep the possessions that are crucial to my future development creatively and spiritually, in part as Saivist yogis are often encouraged to release possessions and change residences often as attachment to possessions and prolonged residence in one place are seen as obstacles to spiritual growth. I am adopting a policy of what books would I bring to a desert island and selling back or donating the rest. The sheer physicality of grappling with the amount of texts that have accumulated admittedly rather indiscriminately over a decade, I would like to use as an opportunity for reflection on the medium of the book opposed to the culture of e-reading and also in a more indistinct way, to the strange phenomenon of the memory of reading experiences that become superimposed onto and associated with physical places and spaces in memory.
What is interesting to me is the fact that my memories of movies or television which equally played a large part of my childhood development rarely if ever tend to superimpose their experience in memory spatially, the memory of their experience always tend to be localized in the space of the theatre or if their own visual space of the film or the spaces in which they were viewed.
For me this doesn’t always happen with reading, but it exists enough in my own experience for me to find the phenomenon fascinating. Does the act of reading trigger a particularly unique type of experience and memory that is different from any other type of experience? There is a particular small street in the old neighborhood of my childhood that to drive down and cross over the bridge will instantly trigger my memory and images of my reading of Dante’s Inferno almost every time. There is also a particular place on the freeway after passing over a bayou bridge that will trigger my memories and images of my reading about everyday life in ancient Greece.
I certainly do not have these triggered reading memories with all of the books that I have read, but the fact that I still will have these discrete triggered memories of reading particular texts that are associated with seemingly irrelevant and arbitrary physical places and spaces is infinitely fascinating to me. I am not sure what this proves or shows if anything, but I would like to look further into how and why this happens.
Are the spaces of hard copy texts somehow different than their electronic counterparts? I would say emphatically, yes. Ironically, this piece is written for electronic publication and I would like to think that I am by no means a self-conscious luddite, as for many years my job as an academic librarian was to promote usage and to teach people how to best use and search for information on databases and electronic resources.
Returning to the subject of spaces associated with reading, I would like to add that I not only am triggered by external physical spaces of passages or experiences of reading certain texts, but I frequently have the experiences of internally associating spaces and places that I already know for settings and places that are described in readings. This would happen independently of any effort on my part as part of a whole internal visualization process which I would like to explore more of. Writing is very much a balance of what to write and describe and how much to leave unstated, and I am wondering if these strategic literary lacunae of unstated description become catalysts for the brain to fill in with experiences of the reader’s own memory banks. I do find that this seems to happen less as a mature reader, and for that matter, the same text reread a decade later is a totally different experience almost to the point of being a different book.
Certainly the back-breaking task of taking the majority of my books back for sale will impress upon me to do this at more regular intervals which reminds me of the library collection development contrasting theories of “just in case” or “just in time” collecting. My own hulking, burgeoning, seemingly arbitrary collection that started to restrict significant space in my apartment was certainly a case of random “just in case” collecting, when on second thought, I actually used such a small fraction of my collection, although some of the more obscure entries did come in handy in graduate school.
But will I purchase an e-reader, and my answer is still in the negative. I love my smart phone and I use it or my computer to access all of the previewed of digitized book content for my sudden “just in time” obscure miscellaneous cravings, but for me still there are some key factors of difference that change the whole reading experience from an e-reader and a printed folio that make reading from an e-reader have all the pleasure of a stringently timed peep-show with a limited amount of tokens or of such a mediated technology that has a generalized literary prophylactic effect that I can never get to the point where I can hear the literary voice actually speak to me as I can from the pages of a book.
This goes back to our culture’s obsession with the speed of access to information, but I will argue that information is only such a small component to be gleaned from the rich and complex and indeed yogic transaction of reading. There is a real physicality and tactility to it as well as an entire spectrum of internalized sensuality.
As I strain under the weight of moving or getting rid of unwanted books, I am reminded of how much I love touching the pages of them. This tactile experience is for me key to the task of close reading, whether fiction or non-fiction. If the book contains something that I really want to understand, underlining and marginalia is my preferred practice. While this can be done on an e-reader, handwritten notes and markings only increase the tactile experience while e-reader notation are at best ephemeral.
Time is a key factor as books especially if you own them, are the least mediated by time while the e-reader is contingent on many factors that mediate the experience. The battery icon is probably one of the most irritating that mediates one’s access to the text and then there is the bothersome built in obsolescence factor, not to mention the added labor of downloading. In general, all of these factors serve to mediate your reading experience by time as if you had a meter ticking in the background. While books, if you don’t set them on fire, rip out the pages or drown them, will provide instant access to their contents in some cases up to over five hundred years, being still in the digital age, the most stable format for information.
For reading literature, I find the sense of touch to be crucial to help focus and to slow down and listen for what is written between the lines. In the more esoteric doctrines of Trika Saivism, it is believed that the shakti principle rejects all other senses except touch and that is how she is best approached internally, mentally in yoga and meditation.
E-readers also have the essential characteristics of a database, that of only showing you specifically what you ask for, whereas books deliver the entire content all at once and flattened out for the eye to see and scan. This may be a very subtle point, and e-readers do have key word searching and many books and e-readers will not have an index, but books have a certain special immediacy that is holistic, transparent and non-linear by its very presence. Reading from an e-reader is more like riding in a train with a very narrow view, while books are more like riding in a plane that offers panoramic views. E-readers have an essential opacity of content. Working in a job that teaches people how to best use and access databases, this is still the most annoying factor of their use. It is really like going to a large department store where you are only able to stand in front of a small counter and ask the clerk to bring out the contents of the store without first seeing them, one at a time. These are extreme examples, but there is still a good deal of underlying truth to them.
What are the differences between reading, writing and talking? Again, the mediating factor of time is key in talking, how many wait an hour to answer a question? The written word does seem in many ways unmediated by time. This brings up the dichotomy between orality and textuality and the reason why audio books are a completely different experience than reading the text. It seems to me that the majority of online expression seems to be geared towards an extremely simplistic, chatty, gossipy, very easy to read, as I am sure as equally easy to write, discontinuous yet undetached talking without conversation while being virtually discourse-free. It seems more like letters without substance or style. No wonder text messaging has become the preferred medium of communication. I will also say that much online writing tends to lack any real “voice”, that mysterious conglomeration of subtleties that condense in the reader’s experience to not only give a sense of the writer’s persona, but that also serve to give a sense of living vitality to the words themselves, left to themselves on the page.
In a college prep class that I taught, I would expose the students to the scene in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire that showed an angel who returns to earth as a human, walks through a library as all of the contents of the author’s collective voices begin speaking at once audibly reciting their works as he passes by. To me a library still does this and always has, while the Internet is too crowded with babble to do this. I am reminded of Borges’ haunting Introduction from El Hacedor that describes the author’s passage from the culture of the plaza to the Library as an entrance into sacred space that preserves time itself, condensed and dried into the ordered pages of books.
It is interesting to note the eighteenth century ideal of self-education which invariably took the form of being well read either through access to a personal or a lending library, while it is interesting to note that the Internet is rarely thought of as a suitable source for being well read. My purpose is not to dismiss the Internet or electronic resources, as indeed the Internet has opened entire vistas of knowledge that would have remained closed through massive international digitization projects that have made the entire contents of archives and research libraries fully searchable on the Internet and through Google Books and other sources. What I would like to reflect upon are the unique properties of the reading experience and what formats and environments contribute to this and what are those that detract.
My first experience with a library was with my family’s hard bound set of encyclopedias and their set of indexes. I was obsessed to scan all of my general curiosities and specific miscellaneous inquiries into the collected entirety of human knowledge and culture, but now they are apparently virtually unsalable and my only choice is to donate them to charity.
Nevertheless, returning to the unique phenomenon of internalized sensuality that is inherent in the reading process and yet is rarely highlighted, and that makes reading in my mind, the most effective virtual reality. Moving from memories of reading to memory itself and reading, it is interesting to recognize that my initially described reminiscences of reading corroborate with Cicero’s and Aristotle’s notions of “places” and “imagery” which were thought to activate and supplement natural memory abilities. This was primarily for oratory skills at a time in the Classical world when texts were not always readily available and that oratory was considered a high art in the Latin world almost as much as writing itself and that reading in the Classical world was still seen in terms of oral recitation, with libraries possibly being very noisy places as evidenced by the passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions that indicated his shock and dismay over seeing someone read quietly to themselves for the first time. While Cicero’s and Aristotle’s works primarily concerned the artificial use of manipulating and organizing places and imagery into elaborate interior architectural memory places to be able to extend a speaker’s memory, my own seemed to have happened spontaneously without much regard for the retention of the contents of the texts that I had read.
Memory itself is a fascinating subject, but I always find the actual, in the moment experience of a text to be much more interesting than the ability to remember its contents. This may explain my own curious habit of reading multiple texts at the same time, keeping running places and book marks, rarely concerned for remembering the preceding contents of the texts that I picked up.
There is the meditative practice of reading in the Western monastic tradition of Lectio Divina that used reading as a form of meditation in preparation for prayer and contemplation. What interests me more is the specific reinterpretation of that practice by St. Teresa of Avila in line with the greater contemplative reform movement of recogimiento that has many yogic elements to it. More than likely it was Neo-Platonic and was part of the revival of Classical mnemotechnic strategies, recogimiento plays off of a dual conflation of meanings of the word related to memory: obviously to remember and literally to re-collect oneself and one’s faculties and attention. St. Teresa wrote of using a book, she did not seem to restrict it to a religious book, to recollect herself. She was not scanning for information or reading for pleasure or entertainment, she used the actual perceptual and cognitive process of reading to achieve a basic meditative aim, to focus and to center oneself.
Abhinavagupta believed that aesthetic experience was not only similar to mystical experience and realization; it was also most suited as an acceptable means for spiritual realization because of its virtual, alaukika, or extraordinary characteristics over ordinary experience. For me, reading provides an experience that is even more extra-ordinary precisely due to its extreme virtuality and internalized array of sensual experience. What can be more mysterious than regular squiggles on a page that convert themselves in an inexplicable interaction interiorly with the reader’s imagination and sensations that seem to spring forth almost of themselves and that are unbound by time and space.
I would like to suggest an abbreviated aesthetic meditative practice to invite the reader to investigate for themselves that is loosely based on the esoteric practice of Panca Kritya of the Pratyabijna School (translated as recognition). This practice engages the yogi to recognize that they recreate the world of experience in each moment, using the same five powers of creation and withdrawal as does Siva.
1. Choose a work of fiction that you have some resonance with, either liking or disliking, as you will not be reading for information or speed. Limit yourself in time to give your entire focus to this process and to minimize or try to eliminate interruptions. Choose a relaxed but alert posture, lying down can be the least conducive to remaining awake, usually sitting up on the floor or in a chair is best. The goal is to remain awake yet relaxed to be able to pay attention to what is happening at all levels.
You may use your natural breathing, your posture, the tactile sense of touch of the page or your visual sense of the words and more importantly the sense of your inner experiencer to notice and to reflexively be aware of what is happening at all levels as you read. Use these four points as your stabilizing points or four wheels to help you proceed with more stability and to go deeper into the experience.
Notice the words on the page and any image or feeling or sensation that arises as a spontaneous appearance of the Self or on the clear mirror or inner theatre of your mind. Do not make any conscious attempts to populate your experience, simply notice what arises of itself and return to reading, stabilizing yourself with the previous four points. This is the first power, abhasana or emanation. The first three powers may happen in sequence but also simultaneously as one power comes into focus and as one retreats, the important thing is to simply notice what is happening and not try to impose anything from outside onto your experience.
2. Maintain your alertness and awareness throughout your established reading period and return to the four points or wheels of your meditation. Maintenance is the power of enjoyment or relishing. Allow this to happen of its own accord while maintaining your experience and interaction with the text in full awareness. Allow any elements that contribute to your enjoyment to arise naturally in your awareness, try not to impose them from outside, recognize them and hold your focus on them as long as they present themselves, such as an interesting character or an unfolding panoramic scene or a pleasing turn of phrase and then release them when their recognition dissipates and return to the four wheels.
3. Withdrawal: at some point a particular enjoyment may be strong enough to take you out of your reading practice, the follow it in reverie either retreating deep within or expanding without in blissful expansion. This is the power of vimarshana or withdrawal. This may happen as a flash of aesthetic pleasure or camatkara, experienced as if your body was a bundle of dry tender caught ablaze in bliss or as a brief subtle pause for reflection or suspension as the experience becomes internalized. This withdrawal power is also happening in general as you pass from scene or passage, paragraph, sentence or word to word. But in the particularly noticed instances experienced after the fullness of experience allows it to happen of itself and the minute either your attention begins to wane or when you begin to get caught up in your own thoughts, return to the four wheels of the reading practice.
4. Concealment: If at any point, for whatever reason, you discover you have read through a whole passage without comprehension, simply reread the passage returning to the practice in renewed full awareness. This is a literal meaning of the fourth power, vilaya. But there is an esoteric meaning reflected in the creation of duality. Any time you insert something from outside onto your reading experience or begin getting caught up in dichotomizing thoughts, you begin to conceal the original nature of your experience and create possible future samskaras. The last two powers are not sequential and reflect themselves towards or away from duality.
5. Revelation: The last power can happen at any time and is experienced when the practice seems to unfold effortlessly and a sense of oneness with the text and the experience feels like it happens by itself. This is augmented by offering each moment and at the close of the session, your entire experience and the text to your sense of the inner experience.
Now that my move is complete, I realize that the one text that I had forgot to rescue that I now miss, is The Temple of Texts by William Gass. I especially appreciate his introduction to Gertrude Stein’s republished arcane meditation on identity and creativity titled, The Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind. He captured in style and by example her rambling aims of displaying that innate human ability that is beyond all contingencies of ego or identity that is the source of all true insight and creativity. He also captured the flattened out panoramic sense of textuality which I am ever reminded of when I drive down the flat streets of the small city where I now live and see the majority of the view is sky that is interspersed with open empty lots. I enjoy reading the portable signs on wheels that appear at random with seemingly arbitrary lettered messages alone on the empty flat plots of land; this brings in recollection, the sense of the timeless voice of writing, an inner oration and theatre that happens without the limits of time and space.
© Paul Smith, 2013
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