Monday, February 21, 2011
In his new book, Literary reading, cognition and emotion, Michael Burke presents a model of reading that he calls "oceanic." As I understand it, he means that reading a piece of literary fiction is like making oneself part of a wave. To begin with, as we prepare to read, we must be in the right mood, get into the right kind of place, and arrange ourselves properly. As our own resources of mood and memory start up they mingle, like the waters of a growing wave, with the book we start to read and, as the story progresses, the wave rises with a gathering tension until at last it breaks and the tension is released. This final phase can be what James Joyce and Burke call an epiphany. In it, however, the principal purpose of fiction is not yet achieved. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway: this purpose "is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader's mind" (Burke, p. 1). This is a lovely model, and Burke explores it in his wide-ranging discussion of psychology, stylistics, and literary theory, as well as in the surveys of readers that he has conducted.
Near the beginning of his Chapter 3, Burke gives a quotation from The ebb tide, written by Robert Louis Stevenson and based on a draft by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, about an Englishman who has changed his name so as not to disgrace his family by his life-habit of failure. He is on the island of Tahiti, "on the beach," meaning washed up. His only possession is a copy of Virgil's Aeneid, into which he dips from time to time. Prompted by its pages there arise in his mind not images of the Roman world of nearly two millennia previously but memories of the England of his childhood: "the busy school room, the green playing fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London" (Stevenson, p. 174).
I read Stevenson's novella some time ago, and liked it. But I did not remember this thought-provoking image of what the reader brings to a piece of fiction. Burke uses it as the starting point for his surveys in which students were asked about their literary reading. His questions start with "Are you an avid reader?" and "When you read literature do you experience mental imagery?" Subsequent questions pursue the issue of imagery in more detail. Burke concludes that his hypothesis is "highly plausible," that readers do experience "Literary Reading Imagery" which includes movements and dynamic scenes in which the reader is actively involved. (Some of these effects have been found, previously, by other researchers.) Burke says, though, that his hypothesis that the imagery often comes from childhood memories remained unconfirmed.
In the last part of his book, Burke moves towards the conclusion of the reading experience. He gave readers the last few paragraphs of Scott Fitzgerald's The great Gatsby. Of 16 subjects who had read the entire novel, six said that the last part did prompt an epiphany in them. Of 20 who read just the closing section, only one experienced such an effect. One of the readers who experienced an epiphany wrote about the lingering after-effects: "somehow I am still reading in my mind" (p. 230).
Burke concludes that "reading does not begin or end when eyes apprehend the words on the page, but long before that and indeed long after it" (p. 255). Perhaps, too, as he remarks, the influence of the empirical tester, and the short passages such testers typically offer, are not as conducive as they might be to the kinds of questions we want to ask. Burke's book offers ideas that are refreshing, and evidence that is suggestive. Its waves continue to rise and break on the mind's beach, where its waters then rattle back again over the pebbles and seashells of thought.
Michael Burke (2011). Literary reading, cognition and emotion: An exploration of the oceanic mind. London: Routledge.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926). The great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1950).
Robert Louis Stevenson (1893). The ebb tide, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories (pp. 171-301). London: Penguin (current edition 1979).