A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures
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A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

The paradoxical and thrilling art of reading with your eyes closed

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A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

I’d like to dedicate a brief discussion to what I’ve learned about the art of reading. It seems that at some point an English major has the compulsive need to defend his degree, if only to prove to the outside world that he does more than just read books and write papers about them. I won’t deny that that is pretty much all this English major does—I can’t speak for the rest of them. I’ll admit it sounds kind of monotonous, but I promise there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In this article, I hope to give a portrait of the reward waiting for those who really dedicate themselves to the reading experience.

In my International Ballroom Dance class last spring semester, my professor Janie Edwards gave the follows an unusual address: “Ladies,” she announced, “For this dance, I want all of you to close your eyes.” The class responded with reluctant giggles, but Dr. Edwards insisted. “You need to learn to trust your lead,” she told us. “I want you to be able to feel everything that he’s about to do—before he does it.” I cannot, unfortunately, relate to you what this experience was like, but I imagine it was pretty unnerving. I’d like to say my confidence did a good deal to ease my dance partner’s discomfort, but in all honesty I was probably the cause.

I bring this story up because I think it provides a great illustration of the art of reading. To really enjoy a book, you must allow it to lead you. I think one of the reasons people develop an averseness to great literature is because they think they need to be smart enough to understand every. Single. Word. Only literature junkies could enjoy a book like that! Many may try to tackle Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and give up after the first five pages—or worse—interrupt their reading every time they encounter a word like supercilious (having or showing arrogant superiority to). You may learn a lot of new words that way, but let’s face it—it’s not fun at all. Reading is like a dance: you can’t just stop every time you miss a beat. The music doesn’t stop, and neither should you. You are the follow; the book is your lead. As the follow, you can’t get carried away trying to consciously interpret every single move that the lead throws at you. To really enjoy reading, you must learn to read with your eyes closed.

In An Experiment on Criticism, C.S. Lewis gives a crash course on the art of reading:

“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”

Lewis’ clarification is important: your surrender to art always precedes your judgement of its' merit. It is a matter of placing your trust in the authority of the text. That is the reason you see the word authority in authorship.My dance partner undoubtedly discovered that I was not a good lead, but she needed to follow me, without reservation, before she could have arrived at that conclusion. (Or perhaps she knew it all along. It’s not a perfect analogy.) If you are reading a novel and find you don’t understand what certain words mean, it is sometimes useful to pause and look them up. But many times, it's better to just laugh and keep on dancing. Allow the words to move you in whatever direction their phonetic shapes incline you towards, and you might be surprised to discover that your heart can discern the meaning before your mind does. Yes, it’s scary. But trust me: it’s way more fun.

Does this mean that the reader must completely suspend his/her intellect? There are some postmodern writers who would say that art should be a totally aesthetic experience, and the standard for artistic merit should be measured merely by the emotional effect it arouses in the recipient. I disagree. I am not saying that a good reader never achieves understanding, only that (especially with the great authors) understanding never comes first. You can’t understand how high Mt. Rainier is while you are climbing it. For the most part, climbing Mt. Rainier involves unthinkably long hours of trudging through a sea of white, nose pointed at the ground, and no views besides your own two feet. But when you reach the summit and turn around, you suddenly get it. You realize what you came here for. As Socrates put it, the beginning of wisdom is in knowing what you don’t know.

Does this sound paradoxical? Reading with your eyes closed is a difficult tightrope to walk, but it’s not impossible. Helen Keller did it. And when I say that, I’m not just making a play on words. The wonder of Helen Keller’s experience is that no word ever entered her head without significance. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her the English language by pressing the shapes of every letter on her palm. Imagine, if you will, what words would mean to you if you were introduced to language in this way. Words would express themselves not merely as phonetic sounds but as solid, tangible shapes that you could literally hold in your hand. For those of us who “see,” we think there is a difference between words and images. We place illustrations in our novels because images arouse a different emotional reaction in our brain. For us, words and images are two separate psychological experiences, but why should they be? They weren’t for Helen Keller. For her, a word was worth a thousand pictures. Each word was as imminently unique as a snowflake; understanding them became a process as physical as eating.

Keller’s most famous anecdote is her episode at the well, where Miss Sullivan finally teaches her the meaning of the word water. For years, Keller had pronounced the word wa-wa, not understanding at all what the word signified. But that did not prevent her from using it. It still fills me with wonder when I read how Keller relates her pivotal epiphany:

“I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning though; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

One could read Keller’s story as the unique and inspirational tale of a single woman, but I think that her psychological journey encapsulates the whole mystery of human experience. Could Keller have ever understood the meaning of water had she not made the incalculable leap from perception to judgement, without the assistance of understanding? I doubt it. That is how all knowledge comes about. Unlike Keller, we have become blind to the sensational experience understanding offers, but we don’t realize that every single piece of knowledge we have ever acquired comes to us in this fashion. T.S. Eliot wrote “in my end is my beginning,” and that is exactly what Keller discovered. She did not approach the word water in tentative, incremental steps. She plunged into the dark—bold, reckless, and irrational—stretching her arms into the unknown and crying out “wa-wa!with every ounce of her being, wrestling with words as passionately as Jacob wrestled with the angel, crying out “bless me!” For wrestling with words is very much like wrestling with angels: they are supernatural things that mount us on wings as eagles, and we must work against gravity to elevate our minds into the clouds of the divine. Keller writes:

“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. ‘Light! Give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul.”

If I have learned anything from being an English major, it’s this: never take language for granted. I hope, one day, I will see every new word, idea, and connection as a revelation from Heaven and a miracle of the intellect. I strive to be more like Helen Keller, always reaching upwards toward the light, crying out with words I do not yet understand.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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