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Phenomenology of Reading
10.8.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Instead of writing a review of a book this week, I’m going to talk about books in general. Let me explain: I’m taking a course on Literary Criticism this semester. It’s all about what literature is, why/how we read/write it, and what it all means. This might sound like nothing but vacuous navel-gazing on the part of English profs as they attempt to somehow justify the importance of their totally worthless field—that’s certainly what it sounds like to me—but I had to write an essay on it and that’s why I didn’t post my column last week. So this week I thought I’d tell you about that essay to give you some insight into the meaningless bullshit that is my English degree.

There wasn’t that much choice of topic with only 27 essay questions to choose from. That may seem like a lot, but 90% of those were totally unintelligible: “Is literature merely the writing out of objects?”…“Is all literature ekphrastic to some degree?”…“Is Plato being serious in his limning of a censorship tribunal?” What do these questions mean? They are total gibberish. “Ekphrastic” isn’t even in the dictionary!

I eventually settled on Question Number 5: “In what sense does a book assume the status of an object? Why does Poulet argue that books only exist in the mind of the reader? Does he mean that a book is a collectible of rebus?” I dismissed the last part of the question as total nonsense and settled down to read Georges Poulet’s essay “Phenomenology of Reading”. Surprisingly, I found it quite interesting. Here is my essay, massively condensed:

“Books are objects,” says Poulet. Well, of course they are. Nobody can deny that. But that’s not all they are. There is a big difference between a bunch of pages, glued to a spine at one edge and bound between covers, and a real book. When I read a book, thoughts and ideas are created in my mind. A book holds ideas in the same way that a vase holds flowers; the only difference is that flowers are material, physical things whereas ideas are not.

Thoughts and ideas are mental entities and can only exist within the mind of a conscious being. As Poulet puts it: “like fish in an aquarium, words, images and ideas disport themselves; these mental entities, in order to exist, need the shelter which I provide; they are dependent on my consciousness.”

So when I write, I’m sending my thoughts out on a voyage through a hostile medium, a medium in which the thoughts themselves cannot exist. They’re like space-travelers, kept in stasis for a trip across the void, only to be awakened once they reach a habitable environment. Words are made dormant to facilitate their journey through the material world. And like the space-travelers, these words are awakened only once they reach an environment in which they can live—that is, another consciousness.

But Poulet says the writer is inconsequential. What if it was the proverbial infinite-number-of-monkeys who wrote Hamlet instead of Shakespeare? The thoughts and ideas generated in the mind of the reader would be the same. It would still be “the same play” as the Hamlet that we all know and love/hate.

So it’s the consciousness of the reader, then, who invests these symbols (letters, words) with meaning. It’s not the words themselves that generate thoughts in the mind of the reader. Words have no inherent meaning. Neither is it the intention of the author. A book need not even have an author—what you are reading right now could have been created by random glitches in your monitor. The reader himself is the creator of the thoughts that arise within his mind.

So, in a sense, you created this column. If it sucks, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I told you it was meaningless bullshit.

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