Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sacred reading

I've begun Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, and so far I like it. Manguel says some cool stuff about reading sacred texts:

In sacred texts, where every letter and the number of letters and their order were dictated by the godhead, full comprehension required not only the eyes but also the rest of the body: swaying to the cadence of the sentences and lifting to one’s lips the holy words, so that nothing of the divine could be lost in the reading. My grandmother read the Old Testament in this manner, mouthing the words and moving her body back and forth to the rhythm of her prayer.

The body gets involved in reading in the Islamic tradition too:

The legal scholar and theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali established a series of rules for studying the Koran in which reading and hearing the text read became part of the same holy act. Rule number five established that the reader must follow the text slowly and distinctly in order to reflect on
what he was reading. Rule number six was “for weeping …. If you do not weep naturally, then force yourself to weep”, since grief should be implicit in the apprehension of the sacred words.

Even if, like me, you aren’t a particularly religious person, you might also find this description moving. I think it’s interesting to consider words or the experience of reading as potentially sacred, even if one doesn’t believe in the sacredness of one particular text or doesn’t believe in a transcendent God. Maybe the act of reading itself can be a sacred thing -- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, etc., a form of communing with other people -- rather than any particular text.

I also like the way he talks about reading as physical as well as mental, and as so complex, it involves the whole person. We usually think of reading as solely mental, not involving the body at all, beyond the obvious way the eyes and brain are involved, but Manguel writes about reading as an act that involves the whole person, thoughts, emotions, memories, and the body. It’s so hard not to think dualistically, about both reading and religious experiences – reading is seen as mental, not physical, worship can be seen, as it often is in Christianity (although not always), as solely spiritual, not physical. But it’s not so simple as that.

Here is Manguel’s take on a passage from Oliver Sacks:

Dr. Oliver Sacks argued that “speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone …. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition.” Much the same can be said of reading: following the text, the reader utters its meaning through a vastly entangled method of learned significances, social conventions, previous readings, personal experience and private taste …. In order to extract a message from that system of black and white signs, I first apprehend the system in an apparently erratic manner, through fickle eyes, and then reconstruct the code of signs through a connecting chain of processing neurons in my brain – a chain that varies according to the nature of the text I’m reading – and imbue that text with something – emotion, physical sentience, intuition, knowledge, soul – that depends on who I am and how I became who I am.