Serendipitous Reading


Now and again we come upon an essay that is so delectable that it seems inadequate for it to be shared merely via social media link.  That is the feeling I had when stumbling over this Aeon piece On Serendipity, and in particular its discussions on the nature of reading, punctuated by differences between looking and seeing.  Here are my favorite elements from this essay, based on conversations between Sven Birkerts and Christopher Benfey.

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“And doesn’t Cortázar, his name and his books open up a whole new field in serendipity, namely, serendipitous reading? I was entranced, enamoured, enchanted, seduced by his novel Hopscotch (1963), the fact of it, the invitation to read it every which way, haphazardly, serendipitously. I can’t remember a word of it, a sentence of it. A whiff of Paris, of young people, of jazz. But I remember it. I took my copy in Spanish, Rayuela, to Mexico, back in 1973, where I wandered, carefully selected books in my backpack (Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Federico García Lorca, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Friedrich Nietzsche’sBeyond Good and Evil (1886), something by Níkos Kazantzákis), trusting in serendipity, trusting in fate, wandering all over the country.

But didn’t Hopscotch, with its explicit invitation to read the chapters out of order, just make literal something we all already know about reading, that it’s never straightforward, never a linear march from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter? No, there’s always a large measure of serendipity in the mix. Where are you reading? When? What time of day, or night? Who is with you? What are you drinking? Most importantly, what are you thinking, what are you going through? Why are you reading? And even as you say the written words to yourself, there’s that other freight train of words and images and thoughts on a parallel track, chugging along, belching smoke, grinding and rattling on the rails.”

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“I do have a bit more to say on looking and seeing, and how we distinguish between the two. Looking, I would say, is the action that makes seeing possible. Looking is more neutral – ‘I’m looking for my key’ or ‘Look over there!’ – whereas seeing suggests a more focused and engaged apprehension. ‘Yes, I see him – that one’ or ‘I do see what you mean.’”

“As we get older, don’t we want to become better lookers (in the active sense), better seers? I think of another Rilke passage, from his most well-known poem, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (1918), in which he talks about how the eyeball ripened in the headless Apollo sculpture. Eyeball in German is Augapfel, literally ‘eye apple’, so the little pun of a ripening apple is lost in translation.

Now I find myself thinking of a few lines from W B Yeats’s poem ‘Among School Children’ (1928):

[…] – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

It really is about maturing eyesight, maturing seeing. He explicitly rejects ‘blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil’. There again is the linkage of wisdom and proper seeing, proper overlooking. He embraces that ‘great rooted blossomer’, the mature chestnut tree, surely his own ideal selfie.”

“But most reading happens otherwise, as you say, and is influenced at every turn by variables in mood. Where are you inwardly stationed as you turn the pages? In my experience, especially now that we are fully enrolled in the digital way of things, most of the day’s reading is a grasshoppering from here to there, and sometimes back again. But even before the digital, long before, I knew that most of my reading was unstable. The beam of focus was moving all over – glancing ahead, winding back, rereading passages, etc. It’s worse now. Staying the course – taking in one sentence after another, from page one to the end – that’s the welcome anomaly, and when it happens I want to cry out some variant of ‘Look Ma, no hands!’”

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“What I’m really interested in here, apropos our conversation, is that permeability between book and reader, the transactional nature of reading, at least the kind we tend to do. A book can powerfully influence the reader’s mindstate – mood – just as that reader’s mood is a kind of scrim through which the contents of the book pass, and which determines so much about the reception.

A mutuality, a passing back and forth of influence. This got me thinking about divination, what was called the Sortes Virgilianae back in the day. The person (Latin-speaker, of course) seeking guidance in some vital life-business, would open his Virgil blindly and point. The lines he landed on became the tea leaves, the Rorschach, the interpretable direction indicator of the future – along with practices like ‘reading’ the entrails of an animal, or the flight patterns of birds, or, I suppose, the crenellations formed when a melted lump of lead is thrust into cold water. “

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