Recent Books on Reading

A surprising number of books about reading have published lately. People worry that a number of factors place reading under pressure:

  • E-books
  • Digital media hogging our attention
  • The way literature is taught in schools

These factors have caused us to re-examine the activity of reading, quite apart from writing, writers, texts, and critical theory.

For those interested in the topic, I thought it might be useful to start a list of books about reading that have published in the last 10 years. They take diverse approaches. (This list does not include work on reading acquisition by elementary students or young adults.)

You’ll forgive me for listing my own book first.

The Future of Reading 

Eric Purchase (Routledge 2019)

Rather than analysing or critiquing texts, this book examines what happens to us when we read: the complex human experience which frees us from certain boundaries and constraints, and then looks at how we can use this freedom of mind to creatively tackle much larger issues in the world.

The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading

Tiffany Eberle Kriner (Fortress Press, 2014)

This eschatological future for texts impacts how we understand meaning making, from the level of semiology to that of hermeneutics. This book tells the story of how readers participate in the future of the word, the eschatology of texts.

What We Talk About When We Talk About BooksThe History and Future of Reading

Leah Price (Basic Books, 2019)

From the dawn of mass literacy to the invention of the paperback, most readers already skimmed and multitasked. Print-era doctors even forbade the very same silent absorption now recommended as a cure for electronic addictions. The evidence that books are dying proves even scarcer. In encounters with librarians, booksellers and activists who are reinventing old ways of reading, Price offers fresh hope to bibliophiles and literature lovers alike.

Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading

Jason Merkoski (Sourcebooks, 2013)

For those who love books, collect books, own an e-reader, vow never to own one, or simply want to know where books are headed, this is a crucial guide to both the future of reading and to our digital culture as a whole.

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Maryanne Wolf (Harper, 2018)

New research on the reading brain chronicles changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium. This book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us―her beloved readers―to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums.

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

Meghan Cox Gurdon (Harper, 2019)

The Enchanted Hour explains the dazzling cognitive and social-emotional benefits that await children, whatever their class, nationality or family background. But it’s not just about bedtime stories for little kids: Reading aloud consoles, uplifts and invigorates at every age, deepening the intellectual lives and emotional well-being of teenagers and adults, too.

Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books

Tony Reinke (Crossway, 2011)

Sounds the call for Christians to reclaim the priority, privilege, and practice of reading. Reinke reminds us that God is the author of all knowledge, and it is his light we seek in all our reading.

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press, 2018)

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Great literature increases knowledge of and desire for the good life by showing readers what virtue looks like and where vice leads. It is not just what one reads but how one reads that cultivates virtue.

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits

Donalyn Miller (Jossey-Bass, 2013)

Based, in part, on survey responses from adult readers as well as students, Reading in the Wild offers solid advice and strategies on how to develop, encourage, and assess five key reading habits that cultivate a lifelong love of reading.

The Gist of Reading

Andrew Elfenbein (Stanford University Press, 2018)

Grounded in the findings of empirical psychology, this book amends classic reader-response theory and attends to neglected aspects of reading that cannot be explained by traditional literary criticism.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Many have absorbed the puritanical message that reading is, first and foremost, good for you–the intellectual equivalent of eating your Brussels sprouts. For such people, indeed for all readers, Jacobs offers some simple, powerful, and much needed advice: read at whim, read what gives you delight, and do so without shame, whether it be Stephen King or the King James Version of the Bible.

The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet

Catherine Ross (Libraries Unlimited, 2014)

The essays are unified by an underlying theory of reading that views readers as sense-makers, actively engaged in reading themselves into the text and reading the texts back into their own lives. It gives educators and librarians insights into their roles with readers and offers a message about the importance of pleasure reading.

The Sound of the Soul

I’ve started on a new book project. I should say, I’ve revived an old book project. The working title is The Sound of the Soul: How to Re-enact Modern Verse. Here’s what it’s about—your thoughts would be most welcome:

The biggest challenge of industrial society is detachment. The economy operates at such a vast scale that the most consequential interactions among people, businesses, and governments must be reduced to expedient transactions. The worst atrocities of the last two centuries were ordered from a clinical distance. Democracy offers a mechanism to respond—if citizens can overcome their apathy.

Since 1800, poets turned verse into a means for people to re-engage with the world. Charles Olson defined the chief objective of modern poetry: “an actual earth of value to / construct one.” Think about William Blake’s Jerusalem, Walt Whitman’s America, Ezra Pound’s paradise, and Diane di Prima’s Loba.

The Sound of the Soul explains the mechanism through which modern poets engage the reader in this construction. Consciousness is rhythmic; the mind perceives the world in patterns or images that unfold over time. The rhythms of modern verse alter the rhythms of the reader’s consciousness and convert the poem from a communication into an experience. The reader enters the imaginal space of the poem so that its possibilities become his or her own—not just ideas to think about but an earth to inhabit.

To this end, modern poems incorporate three kinds of rhythm that place different demands on readers from those of traditional, metrical verse.

First, modern verse unfolds in two simultaneous streams of sound. Like traditional English verse, modern verse incorporates accent and closely follows the natural stress contours of the language. Therefore, this layer of sound emphasizes the sense of the words. On top of this layer, modern poets add rhythms based on syllabic quantities—long and short syllables—which counterpoint the accentual stream. The long syllables sometimes coincide with accented syllables and sometimes fall on different syllables. Syllabic quantities convert the reading of verse from a primarily intellectual activity into a fuller sensual experience.

Second, modern verse consists of aural images, sections of verse, from one to 12 or 15 lines at most. Each occupy a moment of consciousness in the reader’s mind. William James terms such a moment “the specious present,” the amount of attention our mind can sustain between the hazy, receding past and the intimation of the oncoming future. With an aural image, the reader’s mind assembles the words that the poet posits into a tentative perception. A couple of tensions within the aural image oblige us to participate in generating meaning and not just passively absorb the poet’s message:

  • The poet aims in one direction while the reader’s mind leaps to another.
  • The image resolves into a coherent meaning, or the words remain unresolved as a soul scream.

Third, aural images usually occur in sequence, and this sequence conveys the force of an expansive persona, whether a giant figure such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson or a revelatory mind like Emily Dickinson’s. The irregular forms of modern verse express a kind of movement in contrast to the narrative flow or argument of traditional poems. “This is the exercise for this morning,” said Olson at his typewriter, “how to dance / sitting down.” The reader moves down the page in sympathy with the persona and enlarges his or her own soul in response. The poem becomes a live event, a joint act of creation.

Modern poets want us to construct an earth of value through the act of reading their verse. “I give you the end of a golden string,” explains Blake, speaking metaphorically of his verse. “Only wind it into a ball: / It will lead you in at Heavens gate, / Built in Jerusalem’s wall.” We do not live on the literal earth; we live on the earth we collectively imagine. We can only renovate the earth if we renovate our souls, whence our relationship to the world springs. The performance that modern poems demand enables the reader to embody a new image of the earth. “Soul of bulk and substance” writes James Hillman, “can be evoked by words and expressed in words; for myth and poetry, so altogether verbal and ‘fleshless,’ nonetheless resonate with the deepest intimacies of organic existence.” Modern poetry redefines reading. We haven’t made a dish just because we looked at the recipe. Similarly, we haven’t read a modern poem just because we consumed the text. We must re-enact it, through its rhythms, to inhabit its meaning.

Nasty Geniuses: Karl Marx

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Karl Marx.

Why a Genius: I am a Marxist, and virtually everyone who thinks about culture and society is a Marxist, too. Marx gave us the insight that the forms of culture and society reflect the economic conditions of the time. A chivalric romance of the Middle Ages reflects the feudal organization of society in which the nobles control agricultural land and appropriate its products for their own uses. A nineteenth century novel reflects the rising middle class of a capitalist society.

Previously, we used to think about cultural forms in terms of models. The Bible and the great works of classical antiquity set the patterns within which later writers had to work. Enlightenment thinkers noticed that this worship of formalism and tradition imposed absurd conditions on those who wanted to write about the world honestly. They used reason to free us from those constraints. Reason could give modern writers an authority of their own in contrast to the now irrelevant examples from the past.

Yes, observed Marx, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that “reason” is entirely disinterested, that it is valid in itself. We unconsciously absorb the values of the society that surrounds us. They determine what seems “reasonable” to us. These values are imposed by those who own the means of production. One way or another, works of culture flatter the self-image of the powerful.

The complication is that in the modern world, society changes rapidly. One set of values always comes under assault by a new set of values just as a new set of owners continually displaces the old set.

Since Marx, no one can write about culture without paying some attention to the values of the wealthy and powerful. Furthermore, we cannot write about culture without honestly confronting how we ourselves are implicated in those values and the society they create.

You don’t have to be a communist to analyze culture in a Marxist way. I’m in favor of capitalism myself. But Marx’s way of thinking remains the most powerful tool for deriving insight about society and culture. Anyone who believes they have some innate entitlement to wealth, power, and privilege gets swept off the stage in gales of Marxist laughter.

Why Nasty: Marx thought he knew where everything was headed. The workers of industrial society would eventually band together and take over the means of production from the bourgeoisie. Looking backward, Marx could see how economics determined history, how old and new interests battle until the new triumphs, how one period inevitably has to follow another. History obeys a kind of natural law, Marx determined. It wasn’t any kind of leap, then, to project history forward just one step from today’s capitalism to tomorrow’s communism.

And why not help history along? If the bourgeoisie are certain losers, why wait? Why not get rid of them today? Most of the butchery of the 20th century traces back to Marx’s sense of the inevitability of history. Josef Stalin wanted to modernize agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s by converting private land ownership into large collective farms in Ukraine. 10 million people died. Mao Zedong did the same thing in China during Great Leap Forward of the 1950s. Add in his work in the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns, and the death toll reaches 40 million. Mao’s example inspired Pol Pot to launch a similar campaign in Cambodia in the 1970s though only 2 million people perished there. Marx’s sense of history influenced even the triumphalism of Adolph Hitler’s National Socialism.

After such hubris, a little humility refreshes. “Man came here by an intolerable way,” said Charles Olson. “When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has to begin again….”¹ I admire most those who choose the humble occupation of poet.

¹ Olson, Charles, “The Resistance,” Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), p. 47.

Nasty Geniuses: Shakespeare

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Shakespeare.

Why a Genius: Shakespeare knows who you are. And he knows you’re a freak. He’s more honest about who you are than you are. Brutally honest. Or maybe just brutal.

You like to pretend you’re a normal person. You want your family and friends to think you’re worthy of the relationship. You go out in public or into work, and you want people to like and respect you. Sure, you have your quirks, but they’re harmless. You experience the full range of human emotions—you’re not a sociopath—but you don’t let them harm anyone.

Well, Shakespeare calls BS. He knows you dress up as a man or as a woman “just for fun,” and it turns you on secretly. You’re not just wearing a Halloween costume; you’re acting butch, queaning it up.

He knows when you’re jealous, you don’t just walk away and suffer. You plot something nasty to hurt the person you’re jealous of, maybe your best friend. Oh, you’re careful not to let the plot get traced back to you. You sympathize. You offer advice. You smile in their face. Inside you savor every line of pain you read there.

He knows you like to think of yourself as a talented, charismatic leader. You make everything revolve around you. You surround yourself with sycophantic people who tell you how wonderful you are. And if you let it go on long enough, you start to believe what they tell you. The truth is you’re a doddering old fool people are using for their own ends, and they can’t wait to get your bloated ego out of their life.

He knows you’re a really ambitious person, but you don’t have the courage to take what you want on your own. You married a ruthless spouse to do it for you. When you stop halfway to your goal, she grabs the dagger out of your fearful hands and plunges it into the rest of your enemies.

If none of these describe who you are, it’s because freaks come in an infinite variety. Even as prolific a writer as Shakespeare could only just scratch the surface. But you get the idea. You see what humans are all about. That’s why every modern novelist who wanted to explore psychology learned from Shakespeare.

Why Nasty: Shakespeare is bleak. Hopelessly, needlessly so. Think about what you don’t find in Shakespeare. You don’t find a person with all the skills to have a lucrative career in business who becomes a low-paid social worker because he loves helping people in need. You don’t find a daring, creative poet who stashes her poems in a dresser drawer. You don’t find an ordinary guy who walks back into the store to return two extra pennies the cashier gave him by mistake. You don’t find people who make extra food and bring it to an elderly neighbor. You don’t find people who get scant recognition but keep working hard anyway because it is the honorable thing to do.

These are too quiet for Shakespeare. He scorns them if he even notices them. Society is ripped open in sudden gashes, and Shakespeare is there, relishing every drop of blood. But the wounds are also healed by a thousand invisible acts of kindness, humility and generosity. Shakespeare refuses to acknowledge them.

Sure, you will find eloquent speeches in Shakespeare, praising love, mercy, bravery, and other virtues. But they sound pious, not heart-felt. They don’t engage Shakespeare’s imagination the way our freakish behavior does. The human soul is simply nasty, he seems to think, and the world will collapse into ruin if we let individuals run around unchecked.

The only safety lies in social conventions like respecting rank, obeying the government and going to church. Shakespeare knows there is no God and the authorities are corrupt, incompetent boobs. Still, if we don’t fool ourselves into observing these conventions, we’ll all degenerate into serial killers.

If you ask people inside and outside the academy which one writer should be taught in schools, Shakespeare would come out on top, and second-place might not even be close. Every high school student has read him. Writers steal his plots. His plays are performed everywhere and regularly turned into movies. People take their lawn chairs to Shakespeare in the Park in summers. He’s the bestselling author of all time.

Should we really be exposing children to a nihilist like Shakespeare? Thank goodness his language is too flowery and old-fashioned for people to really understand what he is saying. Otherwise, who knows how much damage he would have caused? Still, it would be safer for society if we got rid of Shakespeare from the curriculum altogether and replaced him with someone like Michel de Montaigne, who has a balanced, humane view of our nature.

Nasty Geniuses: Augustine

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Augustine.

Why a Genius: In pagan antiquity, the outward person was the self, especially when one took part in the public life of the community. The notion of an inner, private self was largely a rhetorical device invented by lyric poets such as Sappho. The early Christians had no hope of a public role in the Roman Empire, so private life became the center of their thinking. Accordingly, they inverted the pagans’ understanding of the self. They turned the rhetorical conceit of an inward self into their main identity, and the public self became the shadow. The Christians directed people to look inside themselves and monitor the struggle going on there between good and evil.

Nobody did more to establish the inward self as a real thing than Augustine in the Confessions (398 A.D.). For instance, here Augustine mulls the effect of praise on his soul:

I wish that words of praise from other men did not increase the joy I feel for any good qualities that I may have. Yet I confess that it does increase my joy. What is more, their censure detracts from it… I tell myself that when I am gratified by the praise of a man who well understands what it is that he praises, the true reason for my pleasure is that my neighbor has made good progress and shows promise for the future. Similarly, when I hear him cast a slur upon something which he does not understand or something which in fact is good, I am sorry that he should have this failing… But here again I cannot tell whether this feeling comes from reluctance to allow the man who praises me to disagree with me about my own qualities, not because I am concerned for his welfare, but because the good qualities which please me in myself please me still more when they please others as well…

My God, in the light of your truth I see that if my feelings are stirred by the praise which I receive, it should not be for my own sake but for the good of my neighbor. But whether this is so with me I do not know, for in this matter I know less about myself than I know of you. I beg you, my God, to reveal me to my own eyes, so that I may confess to my brothers in Christ what wounds I find in myself, for they will pray for me. (X, 37)[i]

We see the two halves of Augustine’s soul debating—the public-facing part that loves praise and leads toward wickedness, and the good, inward- or God-facing part that knows he should be more selflessly concerned for his neighbors than for his own reputation. Augustine believes that one side of his soul or the other must triumph—maybe already has triumphed—yet he doesn’t know which one it is. In his anxiety, he appeals to God to show him the winner, and we know from our own experience that he will never get a clear answer because introspective people suffer chronic uncertainty. The contest between good and evil remains indistinct, a blur of dust and flailing limbs, so to speak.

This episode is hazy because Augustine reports second-hand what each part of his soul tells him, instead of dramatizing the dialogue so that readers can watch it unfold before their eyes. Since good and evil are battling over Augustine’s salvation, intense personal interest compels him to provide a running commentary, which gets between the contestants and the reader. This narrative strategy creates a nesting-doll effect. On the outside, we have the public historical figure of Augustine, and within him we have the personal narrator of the Confessions, and within him we have the good and evil figures who are doing battle. As our gaze moves down through the layers, the figures become less distinct. This layering and murkiness creates the illusion of psychological depth, which we believe to be the hallmark of a human mind. This is the beginning of our modern conception of the self

Why Nasty: This nesting-doll structure raises a fundamental question: What are the good and evil sides of Augustine’s character actually fighting over? We naturally say, “Augustine’s soul,” and we then try to locate in the Confessions the substance or reality that supposedly constitutes Augustine. Our choices range from the vague to the invisible. The soul cannot be Augustine’s outward character as we have defined the soul in contrast to the public self. The soul might be the narrator of the Confessions, but we know nothing about this “figure” apart from the fact of the narrative voice itself, which looks identical to the traditional rhetorical device of a narrator and is therefore not real in a sense that would satisfy a Christian. Most plausibly, the good side or the good and evil sides together comprise Augustine’s soul. As we have seen, these figures are hazy. They are either pure abstractions—“good” and “evil”—with no substance, or assorted impulses. If the latter, the soul or self fissions into particles and loses its integrity. The final possibility is that the soul lies further inside in yet a fourth nesting doll about which Augustine says not a word nor emits a hint. Ultimately, we must posit a soul in Augustine for which we lack any evidence and which we concede cannot be known by another person.

This vagueness is not humanly satisfying at all. Accordingly, the early Christians treated good and evil as objectively existing things in the universe, not merely as qualities or abstract ideas. If good and evil are real, how did they get inside us? Augustine proposed that God created Adam “in His image” as fundamentally good. The problem started with Eve, the not-quite-so-good derivative of Adam. Eve introduced selfish desire into humanity by coveting forbidden fruit and then seducing Adam into eating it, too. This original sin  then became part of the genetic makeup inherited by all descendants of Adam and Eve. Thus, says Augustine, we humans are destined to suffer the wrenching inner struggle between “good” and “evil.”

And it’s all women’s fault. Augustine didn’t invent misogyny, but he did more than anyone else to propagate it throughout Christendom.

Augustine’s notion of original sin became standard Christian theology and continues to influence us today. If we accept this framework, we must logically admit that some people win the inner struggle against evil and are therefore “good” while others lose the struggle and are “evil.” There are objectively good people and objectively bad people. We hear this language all the time today. Naturally, “we” are always the good people, and “they” are always the bad people. “We” can promote God’s work of returning the world to its original Adamic goodness by fighting “them.” By making good and evil literal and locating them inside us, Augustine ensured that the inner struggle would become a literal outward struggle. In such a cosmic battle, we cannot stop at merely defeating our enemies; we must eradicate them from the earth. If you’re looking for a justification of genocide, here it is. Thanks, Augustine.

[i] Saint Augustine, The Confessions, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), pp. 246-7.


Nasty Geniuses: Plato

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Plato.

Why a Genius: Every part of me worships Plato. The professional writer admires his skill with language. The reader of literature admires the drama of his dialogues. The thinker admires the intelligence of his philosophical propositions. Plato’s language is artful. He writes with finesse. He’s the most sophisticated prose writer in antiquity. Treating the dialogues as mere vehicles for philosophy does them an injustice. The speakers are characters, with different personalities, interests, and motivations which must be considered when evaluating the ideas they express. Those ideas always have something to them. We must think seriously about them. They inspire our own thinking.

Plato presents Socrates as a challenge to the reader, not as the authoritative voice. We are not meant to accept what Socrates says as Plato’s final thoughts on a topic. Rather, we readers must match wits with Socrates and out-think him. Plato always wants us to push our minds further. In this way, Plato far exceeds his imitators, the writers of philosophical dialogues from Xenophon and Cicero on up to the Renaissance. They write clumsy works in which the main speaker delivers the author’s message and the other characters are there merely to give him an excuse to talk.

Why Nasty: Plato’s notion of “ideas”—the pure, eternal forms of which the things in the world are pale copies—places truth outside of the world most of us live in. Plato then divides people into classes, according to the supposed quality of their minds and education. The smarter and more philosophical a person, the closer they come to perceiving the ideas. These people rise above the imperfections of this world to see more clearly the ideal form of justice, love and so on. Plato argues for an elite who know better than everyone else and who therefore should rule everyone else. Plato’s penchant for stratified or authoritarian states, such as Sparta and Syracuse, follows logically from his philosophy. He would deprive the vast majority of humanity of the ability to find or create meaning for themselves. Plato’s chief concept empowers Plato by disempowering the rest of us.

The antidote to Plato’s class-ridden idealism is transcendentalism. The world is inherently meaningful, and we all have the capacity to find meaning in the smallest object of this world. Walt Whitman shows how transcendentalism applies to a democratic society.

Nasty Geniuses

Superlatives pop up all over the place when we scan the field of Western literature. I couldn’t count the number of volumes whose titles begin “Greatest Works of …” This isn’t just the American hard sell, either. The French say “Les Chefs-d’oeuvre de”—the masterpieces of… The Germans say “Die Schönste Erzählungen von”—the most beautiful stories of … The Italians are prone to literary superlatives, too.

The superlative marks out a book as beautifully written, deeply thought, and morally conceived. The superlative indicates that readers and scholars have tested the work for generations. It meets the highest standards of excellence. It has received FDA approval. In other words, today’s readers can trust it. They can swallow it whole.

I don’t want to dispute the greatness of this or that writer. Instead, I question whether it’s always safe to swallow greatness when we see it. I’ve come across several writers I consider nasty geniuses—undoubtedly great, the greatest of the great, but whose works, if you follow out their logical consequences, lead to nasty results.

Let me define these terms here briefly.

Genius: The authors I have in mind are not merely great writers. They have such strong, fertile imaginations that they change the way people think about the world and practice their craft. I’ll use an analogy from music: Eric Clapton is a great guitar player. Jimi Hendrix was a genius. He changed what people thought was possible with the electric guitar. As an example of his virtuosity, he starts playing with his teeth about a minute and a half into this version of Purple Haze.

Nasty: I didn’t say evil genius. Some of the writers I have in mind did bad things in their lives, no doubt related to their world view. But here I focus on their thinking, which assumes something dire—nasty—about human nature or human possibilities. It’s only realistic to acknowledge the disasters that people cause each other. To codify evil into a principle of human nature, though, sets it as the inexorable fate of our race, something we cannot overcome. We can only check it … by punishing those we view as wicked.

In later posts, I’ll analyze some of the nasty geniuses I have in mind.

The Radioactive Elements of the Self: Stream of Consciousness

The self comprises three radioactive elements, that is, three distinct rhetorical patterns that sustain the illusion of the authentic self: testimony, revelation, and stream of consciousness.

Stream of Consciousness. Psychological novels, such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), infuse characters with the sense of having lived beyond the action of the story. They come from a particular time and place; they have relationships; they have had experiences; they have changed and developed over time. These factors molded the characters into unique individuals. The author stamps this completeness and individuality onto the novel so that it seems a segment of a larger whole with which it is bound up.

The middle-aged, cultured protagonist of The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether, has traveled from Woolett, Massachusetts, to Paris at the request of Mrs. Newsome, a wealthy woman from that town. She asks Strether to persuade her son, Chad, to return to America and take up his position in the family business. Chad had “done” Europe to finish off his education but has fallen in love with Marie de Vionnet, an older French widow with a daughter. The puritanical Mrs. Newsome views the relationship as scandalous.

Through Chad, Strether makes friends with Maria Gostrey, a middle-aged woman of taste and charm but modest income. Strether discusses with her the challenge he faces. He has come to believe that Chad should stay in Paris with the woman he loves, and Strether must somehow persuade Mrs. Newsome to accept Chad’s decision. Mrs. Newsome sees Strether waver and therefore sends another set of ambassadors to persuade Chad: Chad’s sister, Sarah Pocock, and Sarah’s in-laws. Strether believes that if he can persuade the Pococks to support Chad, all of them together might persuade Mrs. Newsome. After one of his conversations with Maria Gostrey at her apartment, Strether gets up to leave:

And now at last he took leave of her, as he had been intending for five minutes. But she went part of the way with him, accompanying him out of the room and into the next and the next. Her noble old apartment offered a succession of three, the first two of which indeed, on entering, smaller than the last, but each with its faded and formal air, enlarged the office of the antechamber and enriched the sense of approach. Strether fancied them, liked them, and, passing through them with her more slowly now, met a sharp renewal of his original impression. He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet—full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire. It was doubtless half the projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant. The oddity, the originality, the poetry—he didn’t know what to call it—of Chad’s connexion reaffirmed for him its romantic side. “They ought to see this, you know. They must.”

“The Pococks?”—she looked about in deprecation; she seemed to see gaps he didn’t. (IX,i)

I needed 190 words merely to set up this quote so you would understand it—a testament to how fully realized a character James has made Strether. This episode in Strether’s life grows organically out of the complex relationships and chains of events that preceded it. The novel depicts some of them while others come from the backstory, before the action of the novel. Strether reacts to Maria Gostrey’s apartment not just from the stimuli he experiences at the moment but also from the character, interests, and expectations he carries with him into the scene. No one else would respond in quite the same way. Another person might find the apartment shabby rather than “noble,” the three successive rooms tedious rather than dramatic. Strether’s reaction speaks of his appreciation for culture, the melancholy of advanced middle age, and the warmth he feels for Maria.

James also conveys Strether’s experience through the pacing of his words. The rhythm of James’s sentences re-enact the tempo of Strether’s passage through the apartment. Strether moves deliberately so as to absorb every detail of the rooms, to savor everything. Here the three clauses reflect Strether’s movements—two quick actions followed by a longer meditation: “He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet—full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire.” Like Strether, James’s sentences do not stride purposefully to a quick conclusion in strict subject-verb-object form. Instead, they unfold slowly, with some complexity, so that the reader must slacken his pace to comprehend them fully. Note the placement of the phrases in the passage, for example, the use of interjections—“he didn’t know what to call it”—and parataxis (“Strether fancied them, liked them, and, passing through them….”) to elongate sentences. These prose rhythms take the reader along with Strether so that we progress through Maria’s apartment much as he does.

The prose does still more. It doesn’t simply describe what Strether thought; it also recreates the rhythm of Strether’s thoughts. For his physical passage through those three rooms reflects the stream of consciousness that unfolds within him, out of sight of Maria. Strether’s thinking even takes over the narration from the omniscient writer. We start off believing that James himself makes these comments about his protagonist, yet by the end, we find it more poignant to think of them as Strether’s running self-commentary: “It was doubtless half the projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant.” The six phrases of the first sentence possess near symmetry. They consist of 12, 7, 6, 6, 8 and 11 syllables as though Strether’s rumination were interrupted by a few quick observations of his surroundings. He then brings his initial idea to a close and resumes the more deliberate pace of his thinking.

The text even skips steps just as we do when our mind moves rapidly: “The oddity, the originality, the poetry—he didn’t know what to call it—of Chad’s connexion reaffirmed for him its romantic side. ‘They ought to see this, you know. They must.’” Like Maria, we must pause to reflect who “they” are and what “this” refers to and why they need to see it. We inhabit the room with Strether as his interlocutor, thrown off balance temporarily by the idiomatic working of his mind. Its rhythm is at odds with our own and therefore trips us up. These stylistic devices give the language a deliberative feel suggestive of the way a real person thinks.

Despite James’s impressive three-dimensional representation, pinpointing Strether’s self proves no easier to do than it was for Sappho. In this passage, Strether’s thoughts consist of impressions of Maria Gostrey’s apartment—the vista through the three small rooms, the candelabra, the parquet floors… From habit, we assume in Strether an independent human mind observing these things, but from the evidence presented by the text itself, that mind is virtually identical to the contents of the apartment and the chains of association they set off. The self merges into the things it encounters. The words “parquet floors,” the observation of parquet floors, and the fact of parquet floors are indistinguishable phenomena while we are reading this passage.

The self serves mainly to offer a reference point with which to organize what would otherwise remain disparate experiences. It emerges from the confluence of Strether’s perceptions. We can think of the self as a kind of hypothesis—James proposes Strether as a figure that these various impressions add up to. Since Strether’s self doesn’t extend beyond the text, we can’t test its reality independently. For all we know, Strether lacks the inner coherence we expect of a self although James manages a convincing simulacrum. Our skepticism causes us to lose the self as a concept, but in compensation, we abandon an artificial barrier that separates us from our environment. The boundaries of the self have become diaphanous. We meld with the world.

The notion of a real, subjective self serves the interests of writers by justifying a strong authorial voice. The self allows authors to assert a unique, compelling experience as the basis for their work. It supports readers less well because it dissolves under the pressure of examination into other things—words, people, and things. Yet this very dissolution suggests another idea of experience that may serve readers better as a more certain support.

The Radioactive Elements of the Self: Revelation

The self comprises three radioactive elements, that is, three distinct rhetorical patterns that sustain the illusion of the authentic self: testimony, revelation, and stream of consciousness.

Revelation. The self holds up better if we think of it as a kind of movement rather than as a substance. Writers groped toward this conception of the self through the technique of revelation, for which the locus classicus is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886). Henry Jekyll, a benevolent and respected scientist, tests a drug that turns him temporarily into a brutal rapist and murderer, Edward Hyde. At first, Jekyll doesn’t realize what is happening to him, so he continues to test the drug at night. During the day, Jekyll reads in the newspaper about the brutal crimes that Hyde has committed the night before. Eventually, Jekyll begins to suspect that he is Hyde. Jekyll explains how the drug worked:

“The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition; and, like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. At that time, my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.”

Jekyll grabs onto an incident in Acts 16, where Paul and Silas, who have come to preach in the city of Philippi in northern Greece, are arrested and thrown in jail. At midnight, with the jailer asleep, an earthquake shatters the doors and opens the prisoners’ fetters. The prisoners all run away.

This Biblical allusion encapsulates the modern view of the human character: we consist of a conscious, daylight personality and an unconscious, nighttime self. We present one face to the world while harboring a different personality inside. We are only dimly aware of it—it’s no accident that the name of Jekyll’s alternate personality sounds like “hide.” The inner self strains to emerge. It needs to enact itself in the world and so become real. It constantly seeks ways to get out. At the same time, the outer self insists on remaining in charge. All our relationships and worldly success depend on this identity. If it loses control for one moment, if it allows “Hyde” to escape, we lose everything. Maybe even our daylight identity disappears forever. Inevitably, some dramatic force, an “earthquake,” does loosen our self-control—drugs, alcohol, anger, love, the death of someone close, the loss of a job, a religious experience, a great book… Then, the secret personality comes forth unexpectedly and takes over our lives.

These personality switches strike us like a revelation. The curtain in front of the tabernacle is rent so that we feel we have seen something meant to remain hidden. Such an involuntary disclosure implies that we are getting the truth.

What truth? Stevenson imagines a drug that “had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine.” In other words, it doesn’t alter us. It merely reveals any personality we keep locked in our heart. The altruistic Dr. Jekyll’s hidden personality conceals a brutal and selfish Mr. Hyde. We might think, then, that Hyde is Jekyll’s “real” self. Hyde does seem surprisingly real. Hyde only awakes when Jekyll is asleep. So we’d expect that Jekyll, who narrates the story, could have only the vaguest notion of a “person” he has never met. Yet Jekyll doesn’t project his hidden personality as some hazy shadow. Edward Hyde possesses a name of his own. He acts independently of the will of Dr. Jekyll. The newspapers know Hyde, know his history, and report on him as a distinct character known to society. Thus, Hyde is more than a mere subsidiary or appendage of Jekyll. He’s not Jekyll minus a few qualities, a bad Jekyll. Nor can Jekyll suppress him by an act of will, at most he can do so only temporarily. Later in the story, Jekyll even disintegrates and leaves Hyde at large in the world. Jekyll’s inner self seems more fleshed out—so much more real—than those of Wordsworth and Hamlet.

However, the notion that Hyde is the real self holds up no better than the proposition that Jekyll is the real self. The two personalities do not come together at random. Jekyll and Hyde are not merely different; they are diametric opposites—one creative and altruistic, the other self-seeking and destructive. The contrast throws the qualities of each personality into high relief. They define one another. We can’t have good without evil. Evil throws good into relief so that we perceive it as such. Each Jekyll in the world—everyone who lives according to society’s ideals—presupposes an equally well developed Hyde.

This meaningful linkage suggests that the self is not a fixed, singular identity with a deep and varied interior landscape as Wordsworth and Hamlet suggest. Rather, the essence of the self appears in the oscillating movement between the shallow personalities that make it up. We cannot count on either Jekyll or Hyde appearing at a given moment, but we can count on the two of them tag-teaming us. We would commit a fatal mistake if we were to take Jekyll at face value only to get surprised by Hyde. We guard ourselves against sudden assault if we treat Jekyll as one face of multiple personalities.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” presents one, tortured way in which personalities alternate and relate to one another in us. We can imagine other rhythms of the self as well. From the perspective of Stevenson’s psychology, we can look back at the other examples of the self we have considered and find new complexity. We see the anguished back and forth between the Hamlet who is paralyzed by self-doubt and the impulsive, homicidal Hamlet. We notice the swing from the Wordsworth who feels alone in a crowd to the Wordsworth who revels in a multitude when he is alone.

If the self is a movement or a rhythm, not a thing or substance, we can entertain more radical notions. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t have to inhabit one body. Hyde and Jekyll could be two different people for all we know, and the narrator Jekyll could just have imagined his more intimate connection with Hyde. After all, if Jekyll is crazy enough to turn into Hyde, he’s crazy enough to fantasize that two separate people are one. The imagination of any kind of relationship between people creates a social reality. Two apparently different people can be formed and linked through the same social structures. To become a benign Dr. Jekyll, we must suppress our bestial instincts. Yet those instincts don’t disappear, nor can everyone rise above them. If one person manages to do so, others won’t succeed, simply by the law of averages. Therefore, a Hyde that corresponds to your Jekyll walks the streets. He belongs to you even though he carries a different Social Security number. Much as Dr. Jekyll would like to escape his shadow, he can’t. It scarcely matters whether he suffers from multiple personality disorder or whether he and Hyde represent two social types. Jekyll and Hyde can be conscious or unconscious of each other; they cannot disconnect from one another.

The self is no more social than it is psychological. It doesn’t bear legal or ethical responsibility for another person. Rather, the self merely consists of what we respond to, whether those phenomena come from inside or outside. Stevenson doesn’t care which Hyde is—a real person Jekyll becomes obsessed with or a projection of Jekyll’s own subconscious. Stevenson does not need to construct an elaborate philosophic scaffolding to explain the status of the two personalities. What matters is that Jekyll concerns himself with Hyde. However Jekyll came to notice Hyde, Hyde furnishes at least some of the content of Jekyll’s self.

I keep speaking from Jekyll’s point of view because that’s how Stevenson tells the story, but we could easily imagine the story from Hyde’s perspective: a brutal, self-seeking man dreams of winning the adulation of society through the pursuit of science and charity. Stevenson would then take us through the steps by which Hyde becomes aware of Jekyll, then concerns himself with Jekyll personally, and ultimately finds himself displaced by Jekyll. Instead of a horror story, it would turn into a tale of redemption. Still, the mechanism of the self would operate in the same way. In fact, neither Jekyll’s nor Hyde’s perspective represents the real self. The two personalities respond to each other. They revolve around each other. They project a single gravitational field despite having a binary identity, each half of which seems concrete to itself and spectral to the other. The self does not just consist of a consciousness looking outward, as Wordsworth and Hamlet assert, but also of the things that look back. The self entangles us in the world. We dissolve into other people.

Radioactive Elements of the Self: Testimony

The self comprises three radioactive elements, that is, three distinct rhetorical patterns that sustain the illusion of the authentic self: testimony, revelation, and stream of consciousness.

Testimony: We gobble up the accounts of eyewitnesses. We want to get closer to events, so we listen to anyone who declares (as Whitman put it), “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” Even when we doubt the speaker’s objectivity, we respect his experience. The Greek lyric poets of the seventh century B.C. adopted first-person narration as a technique to convey ordinary human experiences more directly. In this poem, Sappho projects a self that seems almost as modern as Wordsworth’s:

That man seems to me to be equal

to the gods who sits opposite

you and, after he has said something very

sweet, listens

and laughs charmingly, which really

stimulates the heart in my chest.

For when I look at you a little while, it’s not even possible

for me to talk,

but it makes my tongue stutter, and

fire runs right under my skin,

and I can’t see out of my eyes, and I

hear noises,

and sweat runs down over me, and the shakes

leave me stricken, and I am greener than

grass, and I think to myself that I have

almost died.


The simple use of “I” sucks us in. We can’t help ourselves. We want to find out what “I” experienced, despite our doubts and questions about who the I really is. We know that Sappho wrote this poem. We also know it’s not safe to assume the poem’s speaker is the same as Sappho herself. As poets often do, Sappho could have imagined a different persona to narrate this poem. However, even in poems where we know author and speaker are different, we conserve our pleasure by telling ourselves that the speaker must represent some aspect of the author’s personality and that therefore the poem contains a kernel of authentic experience. If the author didn’t literally experience the events his poem describes, it at least conveys the experience of his imagination of those events. It projects something of his real personality.

We accept the authenticity of this self still more readily because we cannot discern any difference between Sappho and the speaker “I.” We know almost nothing about the historical figure Sappho outside of the poems themselves. Her biography runs to a few lines in The Oxford Classical Dictionary:

Sappho, poetess, daughter of Scamandronymous and Cleis, of Eresus and Mytilene in Lesbos, born c. 612 B.C. As a child, no doubt owing to political troubles, she went into exile in Sicily, though apart from a passing reference to Panormus no traces of this are left in her fragments. She returned to Mytilene, where she was the centre of some kind of thiasos [group] which honored Aphrodite and the Muses and had young girls for members. With these she lived in great intimacy and affection, wrote poems about them, and celebrated their marriages with songs. She married Cercylas and had a child Cleis. Her brother Charaxus angered her by his love for the courtesan Rhodopis or Doricha, whom Sappho is said to have rated. Little else is known of her life, and nothing of her death….[i]

These bits shed almost no light about the authorship of “That man seems.” The few facts about Sappho’s life reveal nothing about her character. We cannot tell why someone of her background wrote this particular poem, apart from her devotion to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and to the Muses—standard practice for poets. Outside of her poems, then, Sappho is a cypher. The fragments of Sappho (only one or two complete poems, including “That man seems,” survive) express a compelling personality, but we would be guilty of circular reasoning if we derived the “real” Sappho from her poems and then used that figure to distinguish between the author and the speaker of the poem.

We lack a picture of the author, so we only have a speaker. The speaker herself does not express an odd character that would lead us to see a difference between her and the author. It’s obvious from the text of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for example, that Prufrock is not T.S. Eliot but a social type that Eliot dramatizes. The satirical tone distances the author from his creation. By contrast, the speaker of Sappho’s poem could be any woman. She relates a common experience that anyone, man or woman, can relate to. She relates it without irony (though with self-deprecating humor). There’s no reason the speaker couldn’t be Sappho. Sappho is the one who wrote the poem in the first person. And deep down, we want her to be the speaker because we trust our hearts to eyewitness accounts more than imagined ones.

In spite of the intellectual frameworks and skepticism with which we analyze poems, our inner reader—the one who experiences the pleasure of reading—does not doubt we hear Sappho’s unmediated voice describing an experience that really happened to her 2,600 years ago. The figure of “I” testifies to her encounter with a man and how it affected her. We respond because we have felt similar things in our own lives. We know the seductive power of a conversation in which our partner engages us with humor and attention. Maybe we become infatuated. Our heart beats faster. We sweat. We become tongue-tied. The common simplicity of the experience Sappho relates disarms us. It does not demand that we elevate our minds above where they already are. We don’t need any special qualifications to relate to it. We accept the authenticity of the poem—or at any rate its plausibility—without asking too many questions.

We modern readers also trust the poem because Sappho constructs the self as we expect. The beating of her heart and the other involuntary symptoms she describes suggest that her body and soul have become temporarily alienated from a detached mind that observes itself from within. Two scenes occur simultaneously. First, an external Sappho converses with the man and suffers this strange combination of pleasure and pain. Second, a Sappho hidden from the man watches herself endure these feelings with enough detachment that she remembers the experience and recounts it to us later on. She has that within which passeth show. Her self has the same two-fold structure as Wordsworth’s, whose physical self walked in the fields with the daffodils while his inner self observed and later ruminated on the experience for us in his poem.

We accept Sappho’s self by analogy: she is like us. She leads us to that avowal through a subtle trick. The poem relates an intimate moment between Sappho and the man. The two sit face to face. Perhaps they are alone. Perhaps no one notices them. Perhaps she doesn’t care or forgets all about the bystanders during the heat of the moment. In any case, the poem describes a conceptual space where the two meet freely as individuals whose feelings might lead them in any direction. The demands of society and of propriety fade. They are a man and a woman who enjoy each other untrammeled for this moment. There’s a hint of emotional danger. Sappho invites the reader to share an intimate moment, too. She addresses the reader individually. We listen to the message as though Sappho intended it for us personally. She creates a conceptual space in which the reader encounters the poem in the privacy of his thoughts. Perhaps we read alone. Perhaps we read where others don’t notice us. Perhaps we forget all about bystanders while we’re immersed in the poem. We accept Sappho’s experience of the man at face value because we are experiencing a similar intimacy with her while we read the poem.

For all the apparent simplicity of the poem, we can’t appreciate the elision of author into speaker, the doubling of her consciousness, the parallel between speaker/listener within the poem and author/reader outside it without recognizing the skill of its construction. We do not get direct eyewitness testimony but a carefully built rhetorical structure designed to convince us of the authenticity of an experience that has been honed to a point. We wish our own experiences were as poignant as Sappho depicts. They almost never are. The reality of the experience disappears behind the screen of the poem’s artifice. We can’t tell whether Sappho did encounter a man in this way, had an encounter but embellished it, heard about one second hand, blended reality with imagination, or imagined it entirely.

In fact, Sappho enjoys fashioning poems more than she likes transcribing the individual soul. The description of her condition goes a bit over the top for someone striving to remain faithful to experience. These 16 short lines contain a list of 10 symptoms—racing heart, inability to talk, being tongue-tied, stutter, fire under the skin, blindness, hearing strange noises, sweat, shakes, green color, and near-death experience—as if Sappho were demonstrating how far she could exaggerate and still carry the poem off. No ordinary talent can gracefully versify 10 symptoms in 16 lines. Moreover, the perspective of Sappho’s poem is not strictly that of an internal consciousness examining itself from within. The “I” of the poem represents her feelings by describing physical symptoms the way a doctor would dictate notes about a patient. The external viewer can also see her sweat, feel her heart palpitations, notice her stuttering speech, and only an external viewer could tell that she had turned green (Sappho herself could not have seen this). In other words, the perspective of the poem looks in from the outside, not just out from the inside. The poem lacks the consistent perspective of a self because verse-making matters more to Sappho than the self. The deeper we look into the poem, the more the self we thought we saw there dissolves into rhetorical devices.

[i] The Oxford Classical Dictionary, eds. N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 950.