Silent Reading and Absorption
At some time during the Middle Ages, people began reading silently for the first time. Hundreds of years before books were printed, they were made more readable by scribes who started inserting spaces between words and using punctuation marks. In the year 380 CE, Saint Augustine observed the silent reading of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and recorded it as a novelty: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still…he never read aloud.” (Saint Augustine, Confessions). A few hundred years on, most literate people in the West would be reading like this.
What difference did silent reading make? With silent reading, readers moved beyond the vestiges of decoding and subvocalization that were likely retained in the experience of reading text lacking rules for word order, visual separation of words, and punctuation. People who read silently surpassed these cognitive obstacles. They read more efficiently. And they read faster. Much faster: 500 milliseconds to recognize a word, 50-150 milliseconds to recognize a single letter.
With all decoding performed subconsciously, readers’ brains developed new circuitry both for the rapid deciphering of text, and for the “deep reading” made possible by putting their brain’s word processor on automatic pilot. (Wolf, Maryanne, Proust and the Squid, “The Expert Reader,” pp. 143-163) Readers now resembled Bishop Ambrose, and like him, they read for meaning. As author Nicholas Carr puts it, “They also became more attentive.” (Carr, The Shallows, p. 60)
Silent readers, capable of sustained concentration, did become attentive. So attentive that they could “get lost” in a book of fiction. Readers became capable of absorption.
With the invention in 1450 of the printing press came the book proper. With the book came the Novel. The novel, a genre made for silent reading, brought storytelling into the private sphere.
What’s so Special about the Novel
A novel is:
· written in prose (unless it's a novel in verse...)
· of a minimum length (around 50,000 words)
Were there any novels before the printing press?
The novel had already been invented much earlier, in Japan. The world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu and published in 1021. However The Tale of Genji, written in the language of the Japanese court, was accessible only to the literate elite.
Even before The Tale of Genji, there were precursors of the novel in Ancient Greece – tales of romance involving star-crossed lovers, pirates, kidnappings, pursuit, escape, and always at the end, the lovers’ reunion.
More sophisticated and representational than a prose adventure tale, the novel that arrived with the printing press – the Gutenberg novel – was both cause and effect of the spread of literacy throughout Europe, America and Canada. Coming of age in the 18th century, the Gutenberg novel could be enjoyed by readers in the privacy of their own homes, and thoughts, rather than in a public setting like the theater. Due to the advance of literacy, storytelling became a more intimate experience. Perhaps the storyteller still required charisma, but only on the page. By the beginning of the 19th century, literacy was widespread in Europe and the United States.
The Gutenberg Novel
The stories people told just a few centuries after 1450 would be written and enacted by a single storyteller. The novel’s storyteller is one whose individuality, particular imagination, personality, and style fundamentally shapes any myth, story, or socially transmitted content that finds its way into a book of fiction.
By the 18th century then, how had the arrival of the novel changed storytelling?
Every lyric poem has its poet. Every play has its playwright. Every novel has its novelist. And something more. Every novel has its author.
For the novelist –– who might write imaginary epistles as the vehicle of the story’s plot; who might write a story interrupted by passages of discursive prose along the lines of
“O Tempora! O Mores!” (“Oh what times! Oh what customs!”) who might write a cautionary Gothic Romance framed by a screed on the worth of the novel; who might comment on the very fact of writing fiction, on the human uses of fiction, indeed – the novelist, then, is author. (Yes, and Shakespeare is author, and Marcus Aurelius too, but they are more commonly Bard and Philosopher.)
To be an author is to be something more than the practitioner of a particular genre. The author is someone who has authority. An author has special expertise, and is therefore appointed – merely as a result of his habit of writing novels, it would seem –– to speak to, and for, society.
Storytelling in the Novel
Today, the novel tells almost any kind of story. You can read science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, a spy thriller, historical fiction, horror, romance, autobiographical fiction, a comedy of manners tale, a coming-of-age story or Bildungsroman, meta-fiction, a family saga, eco-fiction, and more. You can read any one of these subgenres, or a hyphenated hybrid of two or more types of story. But whatever type of novel you read, you will find that the kernel of the novel, its essential template, is determined by realism.
Classic realism holds a mirror up to nature. As 19th century writer Stendhal would have it: “A novel is a mirror carried along a highway.” We, the readers, look in the mirror and see reality reflected, a framed picture. In modern and contemporary variants of realism in the novel, we see, not so much a mirror held up to nature, as a mirror held up to human nature. We see, for the novel’s characters, a process of self-knowledge that occurs incrementally as the individual sees himself reflected again and again by society –– and acts or does not act to modify that image. Or we see the nature of individual characters, or of human perception itself, embodied in a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting points of view.
Does Realism = Emotional Intelligence?
Realism sets a standard of representation for the realist novel. That standard can be violated, but not ignored. Realism establishes a truth standard: the standard of Veracity, or perhaps simply Verisimilitude. This standard of realistic representation, however modified, re-cast, teased and tormented, means that the novel will not, in the course of its development, become primarily a genre for the projection of the reader’s fantasies. Even with a novel as imaginative as Frankenstein, the reader may thrill at, and identify with, Vicctor Frankenstein’s superhuman creative powers, but will acknowledge their limits while reading about the psychological torment of Frankenstein’s monster.
Experimentation in the novel, productive of innovation and even masterpieces, will not produce a new line of literary descendants if in spirit it strays too far from the tenets of realism. Knowing the world through literature, like learning to know self and the ‘real’ world through experience, rests on a core of truth. Emotional Intelligence rests on the premise that self and world are knowable. The novel’s communication of story to the reader is premised on the belief that self and world are to some extent knowable and representable in fiction.
Romancing the Novel
Not all novels are realist novels. Indeed, many fine novels from various eras come to us indirectly or directly from the Romance tradition.Yet many Classic Romance tales are not quite novels, for reasons besides their length.
Daphnis and Chloe, written in prose, is the story of two lovers whose adventures, recounted in around 30,000 words (in ancient Greek) follow their separation and precede their happy reunion at the end of the story. Why isn’t this book considered a novel? What about the other Greek adventure tales written in the 2nd and 3rd century CE?
In The Novel: History and Theory, Franco Moretti points to the tension, in the emerging novel, between pure storytelling (narrativity), and more detailed, slower reading passages of description, philosophical inquiry, or metaphorical writing (complexity). In the early adventure novel, the suspense of narrativity completely wins out over complexity, so much so that these adventure tales are best categorized as romances rather than novels.
Geographic scope is one of the key requirements of the adventure novel or prose romance. Is it “no accident” that the prose romance novel originated with a sea-faring people, the Ancient Greeks, and that the genre survived in the work of a handful of nearly anonymous Greek authors from such far-flung locations as the island of Lesbos, Emesa (Homs, Syria), Ephesus (present-day Turkey), and Alexandria, Egypt –- outposts of Greek expansion and the Roman Empire?
And again, is it “no accident” that another island people, sea-faring and imperial, provided paradigms and places for the proliferation of the genre? The British Empire contributed to the development of adventure fiction in two key ways: by providing the English-speaking adventure-reading public with the ever-fertile sea-faring paradigm (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Captains Courageous, Kydd, The Sea-Hawk, Horatio Hornblower) and with exotic locations made accessible by imperialism: South Africa (King Solomon’s Mines), Egypt and the Sudan (The Four Feathers), the Himalayas (Lost Horizon), and of course India (Kim, The Broken Road, The Drum).
Geographic scope for tales of adventure was provided throughout the Middle Ages in Europe by wars of expansionism and by the crusades. The legendary adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were related in the verse fiction of Chrétien de Troyes, and in prose romances such as Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur). Chivalric romances combining duels, journeys, and courtly love often dramatized sacred themes such as the quest for the holy grail. While some chivalric tales featured descriptive prose and deft characterization, for the most part narrativity dominated the genre.
The Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes launched the picaresque tradition, popular in 16th and 17th century Europe, inspiring novels that emulated the picaresque, like Gil Blas, and novels that integrated the picaresque into a greater whole, notably Don Quixote. While the episodic nature of these tales about a scamp who survives by his wits highlighted narrativity, the picaro’s adventures in a hypocritical society defined the axis of complexity.
Modern Romance tales, more readily recognizable as Fantasy Books, Thrillers, and even Crime Fiction, retain Classic Romance’s emphasis on suspense and the pure delight of storytelling. Vestiges of the Ancient Greek Novel can be seen in ever-popular action plots with narrow escapes, as in the thrillers of Clive Cussler and associates. While chivalric romance has devolved, for the most part, into popular romance, one finds vestiges of the grail quest in such unexpected places as Cussler’s Corsair, in which an adventure plot involving a spy ship in the Mediterranean is combined with the search for a sacred relic, the “Jewel of Jerusalem.”
What, then, is the Emotional Intelligence quotient of the reader of these Classic Romance tales, and of the person who reads the modern adventure tales that are their descendants? While no one can (yet) quantify the beneficial interplay of thought and feeling that occurs while reading a certain type of novel, it is clear that absorption in plot, often an accelerating narrative, is the primary reading experience for consumers of adventure books.
Books resembling the early Greek novels, with their adrenalin-rush of dangers, pursuits, and hair’s-breadth escapes, followed by reunion and a happy ending, are about nothing if not survival (the loving couple’s survival, and vicariously, our own survival). But because the pace of the narrative, like the intensity of catharsis in the viewer of a tragic drama, leaves insufficient space for thinking about the emotions involved, absorption in a thriller is unlikely to equate to awareness.
EI, the beneficial interplay of thought and feeling, prefers books that keep narrativity and complexity in balance.
Realism Our Compass
Salman Rushdie, quoted above, says: “we are the only creature that tells stories, and sometimes those are true stories and sometimes those are made up stories.” Note that Rushdie does not say “false stories.” There is no judgment implicit in the “made up” stories that are found in the novel. Of course, in a sense, fiction’s tales are, all of them, by definition, untrue. Yet even here, realism is like a compass, guiding us away from too intense a focus on prose fiction outliers, on the literary experiments of a brave new world, and helping us navigate the uncertain course of the contemporary novel. Contrived stories, incredible stories, stories without heroes (or without antiheroes or protagonists), randomized stories, may form the basis of individual novels, but they are workable as fictions with a future only if they in some way behave like traditional stories, credible stories, true-seeming stories.
Reading for Emotional Intelligence: a Story-minded Quality of Attention
End of Part Three: To Be Continued