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Monday, 04 November 2013


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What fascinating thoughts on the historical gap between (old) book and (new) reader, and I love the Arcimboldo image too. I think that the fact we still read books from other ages and other cultures says to me that empathy is the job of the reader. In other words, all those readers who have to feel sympathy for characters and approve of them are going to struggle big time. But I like the feeling of walking a mile in someone else's shoes, even if they pinch a bit. It's quite possible to hold an image of the past up against the experience of contemporary reality, and reading becomes all the more interesting for doing that.


litlove! :)

Why people read past literatures is something I was thinking about when I wrote this, but it all got too convoluted for one post... I do agree that empathy is the job of the reader, but I also feel that readers who like the familiar need not necessarily struggle, especially when it comes to the nineteenth century and the twentieth-century 'middlebrow', both of which are rich in characters who are often easy enough to identify with if what you want from that book is just to imagine yourself in a corset or twinset. I suppose I'm thinking in particular of those who read Jane Austen's novels as romances and nothing more.

I think people - well, me! - read older works out of curiosity for different cultures and characters, certainly, but also because a 'classic' has a sort of invisible 'guaranteed good read' sticker on it, because all art builds on the shoulders of what went before it and is influenced by it, to acquire cultural capital, for nostalgic reasons, for distance... I'm sure there are more reasons, I hope other people write theirs here too.

Your final point, that the relationship between old book and new reader is a two-way street, is brilliant. I hadn't thought of it like that AT ALL.

Amateur Reader (Tom)

Well stated, litlove! I would add that with study and experience the reader can close some of those gaps.

A good part of what many literature and history grad students do is work on not just their knowledge but their imaginative sympathy with the period they have chosen to study. They do not seek to eliminate their perspective as a reader of today, but to add more perspectives, more ways to read.

I am way over on the knowledge-seeking side of the spectrum, myself. Why do I read literature? In large part to learn about literature. This is a long way from a search for the "good read," although to be honest I do not know what people mean by that phrase. Lots of great books are bad, bad reads.

Desperate Reader

I found the age question really interesting in Miss or Mrs? for a few reasons - I think as you pointed out in your comment the age of the reader matters. If I were 16 it would probably not bother me in the same way and when I was 16 it was far more socially acceptable for an older man to have an affair with a much younger woman. I find it curious that in a society where young women's clothing is increasingly adult that we're more concerned than ever about under age sex.


Hello Tom, and thanks for your comment. 'Way over on the knowledge-seeking side of the spectrum' - I'd never have guessed! :)

I have always liked the idea of multiple readings, and of different perspectives offering interesting approaches to texts. I suppose that I was just surprised that a reaction of 'Gosh how different things were in the past' such as mine was to 'Miss or Mrs?' could ever be interesting in itself.

I'm still thinking about your last sentence...


Hayley, yes, the age of the reader must matter and I don't think I'd have been bothered by that aspect of 'Miss or Mrs?' at sixteen either (but then I was a total idiot at that age) (not now, obviously).

I suppose that as a society, during the last couple of decades we've learned so much more about just how exploitative and abusive relationships between teenagers and much older adults can be. But then, for so much of the past, children and adults dressed the same and could marry at a very early age. So that perhaps creates a tension, do you think? I'm not sure quite how far it explains things though.

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