Shades of reading

Our ability to see is fundamentally defined by our ability to perceive differences. Our eyes can distinguish between black and white because we can perceive the difference between the two. We suspect that an engine is not running smoothly because we perceive the difference (of sound and vibration, perhaps) that it produces. Our appetite is aroused when we smell good food because we can sense its difference from the not-so-good food.

The same applies to reading: depending on each individual’s degree of sensitivity, there are as many shades of reading. And by reading, I mean the relationship between the reader and the text.

The first shade is to consider that there is a direct relationship between the reader and what is said in the text. Here, the content of the text is given a privilege. A reader’s attention is usually given to the different topics that are discussed in the text. Here, the text is treated like a flat surface---no other, and no deeper than a single sheet of paper. What is written in the text is what the text is.

The second shade is to consider that the text says as much about the author than the content of the text itself. At this level, a reader is able to sense the deliberation and clumsiness of the author in stitching together different thoughts. A reader is able to sense how the author may or may not follow a certain structure in organizing the text. What is written in the text starts to convey different senses of meaning through the different ways of expression.

The third shade is to consider that the text says more about the author than the content of the text itself. Now some warnings must be given since reading at this shade may lead a reader either to blind admiration or hasty denigration. For a reader to continue reading, it is important to suspend his or her disbelief and appreciate why the text is written the way it is. A reader’s value judgment of the text (in a simple term, either it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’) is not to seal off an interpretation but as an opening point to explore whether multiple interpretations are available. This is neatly summarized by the late literary theorist Umberto Eco. He asserts that to read (and to interpret) a text is “to decide whether it has a fixed meaning, many possible meanings, or none at all” (Eco, 1994, p. 23). In other words, our ability to sense why a text is written gives more depth to what is written and the ways it is written.

Throughout the three shades above, our perception of difference is sensitized from seeing text to say something about itself to seeing text to say something more about its author. The beauty of seeing is, of course, when we can perceive how different colors intermingle and complement each other in a harmonious dance.

Reference

Eco, U. (1994). The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.