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What do we mean by ‘reading for pleasure’? Why has novel-reading by women long been associated with eroticism? This lecture will be illustrated by images of readers from Ancient Rome to the present day.

The lecture will include a consideration of representations of female and male reading such as these:


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26 November 2013 Reading for Pleasure Professor Belinda Jack  For those of you who didn’t come to my first lecture I’d like to sketch out very briefly the ground we covered. My title was ‘What is Reading?’ and I asked a number of questions about what the process is. We explored what a slippery business language is and how reading – even the simplest texts which are designed above all to be clear – is always in danger of falling into ambiguity. Here is one of the examples I gave:HEAVY PLANT CROSSINGFor those of you who were at my last lecture you’ll be glad to see that I’ve found a new plant crossing… .What’s the linguistic explanation for the mis-reading? Clearly ‘plant’ has a number of different meanings:a small plant, as distinct from a shrub or tree: garden plantsPlants differ from animals in lacking specialized sense organs, having no capacity for voluntary movement, having cell walls, and growing to suit their surroundings rather than having a fixed body plan2a place where an industrial or manufacturing process takes place: a giant car plant[mass noun] machinery used in an industrial or manufacturing process: inadequate investment in new plant3a person placed in a group as a spy or informer: we thought he was a CIA plant spreading disinformationa thing put among someone’s belongings to incriminate or compromise them.  This one was new to me:4 Snooker a shot in which the cue ball is made to strike one of two touching or nearly touching balls with the result that the second is potted.  So, words can be mis-read when, for example, they have multiple meanings. Oral language is subject to still more ambiguities – because of homophones – words that sound the same but are spelt differently. One of my favourite examples is this. A boy comes home and tells his mother: ‘A chef came to school today. He brought steak and tortoise to cook’. The child’s mother is horrified, ‘tortoise?’ ‘No, taught us’. Language can be mis-read and mis-understood, but another problem is that it can also lose its life force, because language is never static. C.S.Lewis used the term ‘verbicide’ to describe a phenomenon he deplored: the tendency for words to become ever more judgemental and evaluative, high-jacking words with other meanings to their cause: ‘awful’ to mean ‘bad’, instead of ‘causing terror or dread’, more recently, ‘awesome’ to mean ‘excellent’ as opposed to ‘inspiring awe’. More bizarre recent examples many of us will be aware of would include ‘wicked’ to mean ‘excellent’, rather than ‘evil’. That’s almost a complete reversal. On the other hand we should surely be delighted by the fact that language has a life of its own and no statutory body can prevent change, however hard some institutions have tried; I’m thinking of France’s Académie Française, for example that tries to prevent ‘impurities’ entering the language, often Anglicisms. The Académie also intervened in a lively parliamentary debate in June 2008 when constitutional protection for regional languages in France - Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Occitan, and Francoprovençal – was debated. [Signed but not yet ratified]Here is that impressive – but largely conservative body in 2010. I share some of C.S.Lewis’s misgivings about verbicide and the Académie’s concern not to allow Anglicisms to kill off large amounts of French vocabulary. But I do think that minority languages need to be protected. They are a linguistic enrichment – not a linguistic reduction. I also see cliché as a greater threat to the vivacity of language than Lewis’s notion of verbicide. Clichés are, in effect, hieroglyphs. When we read a phrase like, ‘It’s no skin off my back’, we immediately understand that the subject, the ‘I’ of the sentence, is not offended or adversely affected by something. We don’t read the individual words and see the vivid and unpleasant visual image of skin being removed from someone’s back – like a severe case of sunburn or dorsal skin infection – these don’t come to mind. In other words the cliché has suppressed the meaning of its constituent words. Another strange example is the phrase ‘I love him to death’. When you read or hear this do you ponder death and mortality – necrophilia even!?  So part of my argument is that creative writers – all writers - are charged – among many duties - with the responsibility of countering acts of verbicide, revivifying language that has lost it life blood - and protecting language - and languages - as the depositories of group history and memory. T.S.Eliot wrote: "A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him." His language starts out as the language of now. But at the same time, as Eliot had emphasized in a lecture two years earlier, in 1943, "the duty of the poet is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve." And I would add, revivify language in the wake of acts of verbicide. Writers are responsible for ensuring that we read attentively. So how does this tie in with this evening’s topic – ‘Reading for Pleasure’? Could you argue that reading attentively is the opposite of ‘reading for pleasure’? Is it when we are no longer conscious that we are reading, that it is most pleasurable? Not when we are conscious of how the words are working? ‘Pleasure’ itself is another subject we take rather for granted. I only recently realised what a ‘pleasure beach’ was. I assumed that all beaches were, almost by definition, places of pleasure. But I realise that a ‘pleasure beach’ is actually a fun fair. This is Blackpool ‘Pleasure Beach’. And here are people enjoying its ‘pleasures’: Is this ‘pleasure’? Clearly it’s a subjective matter. But certain kinds of ‘pleasure’ do seem to be associated with fear, the pleasure derived from ghost stories, for example. What do we make of the ‘stately pleasure domes’ in the first line of Coleridge’s wonderful poem, ‘Kubla Kahn’?  ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn/ A stately pleasure dome decree/ Where Alph, the sacred river ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea.’ According to Coleridge’s preface to the poem, it was composed one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. This is how the Victorian illustrator, Patten Wilson (1868 – 1928), envisaged Coleridge’s ‘pleasure dome’: This is clearly a fanciful, extensive, complicated and exotic place, a place that has been dreamt up. Just as opium prompts escape, so too does the poem – and poetry generally. Pleasure and escape would seem to be closely associated. The same could be said of eighteenth-century ‘pleasure gardens’: The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea near (now in) London by Thomas Bowles, 1754 This is an illustration of Ranelagh Gardens. In the eighteenth century, the land to the east of Chelsea Royal Hospital was a pleasure garden open to evening visitors in the spring and early summer. Ranelagh Gardens had opened in 1742, in direct competition to its famous predecessor Vauxhall Gardens. With tree-lined promenades, music, singing, fireworks and masquerades, the entertainments on offer at Ranelagh were modern and varied. Its principal innovation, however, was a dramatic rotunda, according to a contemporary commentator – ‘a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted and illuminated into which everybody that loves eating, drinking and staring is admitted’. The Rotunda has long gone but you can still promenade down one of the garden’s original tree-lined walks.  One of the fashions was for ladies to take their reading with them to the gardens. Richardson’s Pamela became the rage of the town and ladies carried the volumes with them to Ranelagh Gardens to demonstrate that they were up with the latest literary trends. Ranelagh Gardens was clearly in part a place of pleasure, fantasy and escape, somewhere where the trials of mundane life could be forgotten. And like Coleridge’s ‘stately pleasure dome’ the architecture was exotic.  ‘Pleasure’, like the concept of ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ was not a subject discussed by psychologists until fairly late on in the last century. They are all concepts that are difficult on the one hand to define and on the other to gauge scientifically. But ‘pleasure’ is now considered central to psychology and all experience is now deemed to be coloured by pleasure or displeasure. The neurophysiology of pleasure is also under investigation. Are smiles and laughter, for example, signs of pleasure?  Colloquially, we speak of ‘reading for pleasure’ perhaps to imply that the reading isn’t required of our jobs. We might equate it with reading as a ‘leisure’ pursuit. Is ‘reading for pleasure’ the antithesis of ‘reading for facts’ – a phone number in a phone book, or knowledge (of the basics of a language one needs for travel in a foreign country), or wisdom – philosophical writing which might answer our need to know ‘why we are here’, or for spiritual gain? The philosophical point reminds me of a cartoon I rather like:    But some of this reading which we don’t associate with pleasure may, nevertheless, be pleasurable. Reading a gas bill or a child’s school report can go either way. If the bill is significantly smaller than we’d anticipated, we’re pleased. Likewise if the child’s report is very much more positive than anticipated, again we’re pleased. Here a distinction might usefully be made between reading that is pleasurable – in and of itself – and reading to find out about a result – which may or may not bring pleasure. In my last lecture I suggested that the iconographic record – which goes back a very long way – might throw particular light on ‘reading for pleasure’? A crude typology of the reader in art might contain five main categories: the reader/scholar, the reader/teacher, the Virgin Mary and the Christian tradition more broadly, group reading, and lone reading.Reader scholar: A Roman reading a roll in front of a press (armarium). From a photograph of a sarcophagus in the garden of the Villa Balestra. Rome. [gloss] This is Rembrandt’s Scholar Reading (1631; 60 x 48 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) The scholar has a long, full beard, indicating age and suggestive of wisdom. The tomes he’s reading are large. Light, symbolising intellectual or spiritual illumination (a word derived from the Latin lumens, meaning light) floods through the window and bathes the scholar and his reading in brightness. He’s wearing thick clothes and his feet are resting on a little stool, to keep them off the floor and above any drafts. He is presumably warm and comfortable, and therefore able to read with concentration for long stretches. This would seem to be an image of ‘reading for knowledge or wisdom’. Whether or not the scholar is deriving pleasure is perhaps a question that would never have been asked of him – as a highly respected 17th c. scholar. Are most male readers in paintings scholars? What about Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman Reading [gloss]Reynolds was painting during the 18th c.. His work is generally considered to be in the ‘Grand Style’, suggestive of idealisation. The young man here appears sensitive, cultured and civilised. Again, the question of whether or not he is reading ‘for pleasure’ seems an appropriate one. Reader/teachersMothers teaching children to read, or reading with them is a large category and it has a long history.Mother and child, Pompeii, 1st century A.D [gloss]In the modern period mothers or women reading to children are more ambiguous.Mary Cassatt, Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, 1895 [gloss]Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren, 1888 [gloss] In the 18th century, group reading took place alongside silent and solitary reading. Often it was a way of inculcating religious and family values. Greuze, ‘The Father of the Family reads the Bible to his children’ (1755) the reading of Scripture has the power to hold everyone’s attention. The smallest child's attempt to play with the dog fails to attract any attention from the family, such is their absorption in the reading. Reading here is closely associated with self-improvement – as opposed to ‘pleasure’.So here, group reading overlaps with ‘Reading in the Western Christian tradition’This painting shows Cesarius of Arles handing over the Rule he has written for the sisters of St Jean in the 6th century:  The Rule described how they were to live and the two nuns look compliant, their heads tilted modestly to one side, submitting to the reading prescribed for them.  There isn’t much choice here and the implication is that they are not reading for pleasure. The Vigin Mary – with book – is the dominant image of the lone reader in the Western Christian tradition. There are numerous Annunciation paintings that show Mary interrupted from her reading by Gabriel. 15th c. Mérode altarpiece (gloss) So what of lone readers? As we’ve seen, lone male readers tend to be clerics, scholars – or saints. But it is lone women readers that make up by far the largest category of reader in art. And aside from images of the Virgin Mary, there’s a good bit more humour associated with the lone woman reader, as in this contemporary imageof a woman reading in a bath made out of books.  Here, the woman reader is literally ‘bathing in books’. As far as we can see she is naked, and her right hand seems poised, index finger outstretched, ready to stroke her knee, perhaps. And there’s plenty of froth from her bubble bath – suggestive of luxury. The emptiness of the studio-apartment – apart from the book-bath – implies that this is all she needs – to be happy. Is this what we mean by ‘reading for pleasure’? It’s a phrase that’s bandied about quite a bit recently, particularly in discussions of children’s reading and its fundamental educational importance. In a recent survey it was discovered that children who ‘read for pleasure’ were significantly better at maths than their colleagues who read very little. In education ‘reading for pleasure’ often means reading that isn’t required by the curriculum or educators. It’s sometimes called ‘independent’ or ‘voluntary’ reading.  But to return to women readers; they are most often portrayed as apparently reading for ‘escape’, while men are generally - and apparently - reading for knowledge. The myriad images of women seemingly reading for escape or pleasure, appeal to the sensual, even erotic aspect of reading certain kinds of fiction.  This is Pierre Badouin’s La Lecture, gouache from ca. 1760, now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. The woman’s right hand is under her skirt and she appears to have fallen into something of a swoon. Under her left hand is a book which she has allowed to drop onto her lapdog’s – what ‘house’ or even ‘boudoir’? There are other symbols of potential escape – a globe and maps, associated with travel, and a musical instrument, suggesting the imaginative escape stimulated by music. Is this ‘reading for pleasure’?  Or what about this young woman whom I showed you at the end of my last lecture:Théodore Roussel, The Reading Girl, 1886-7 (in the Tate Gallery – Tate Britain):  This was painted at a moment when British art was moving away from the more elevated style of Neo-Classicism in representations of the nude, towards a new naturalism. This was widely seen as a threat to moral standards. Roussel's picture went on show at the New English Art Club in April 1887 and it caused a mild scandal and aroused considerable hostility (www.tate.org.uk). A reviewer in the Spectator wrote: 'Our imagination fails to conceive any adequate reason for a picture of this sort. It is realism of the worst kind, the artist's eye seeing only the vulgar outside of his model, and reproducing that callously and brutally. No human being, we should imagine, could take any pleasure in such a picture as this; it is a degradation of Art' (Spectator, 16 April 1887). So the question that the painting raises is not ‘is this woman deriving pleasure from her reading’, but rather ‘can the viewer of this woman reading derive any pleasure from contemplating her?’  What seems clear is that pleasure – in relation to reading at least - is closely associated with escape. Now all reading is escapist in so far as the reader loses himself or herself, and lives, vicariously, in another world, the world conjured by the book. This is as true of a history book as a novel. It is also true of other forms of narrative non-fiction, biography, autobiography and so on. It is equally true of some science writing. There is no harm in escape per se. What matters is where the reader escapes to and that is a matter of debate in relation to particular pieces of writing. It can also be a matter of legal process. When the full unbowdlerized edition of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written in the 1920s, was published by Penguin Books in Britain in 1960, the publisher was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. The Act allowed for works of literary merit to escape prosecution regardless of the use of ‘obscenities’, in Lawrence’s case the swear words, ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’. The prosecution lost the case and when Penguin published a second edition, in 1961, it included a dedication: ‘For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” and thus made D. H. Lawrence's last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.’ The trial resulted in more than that; writers had greater freedom to experiment with more colloquial language and more daring plots. So where do books allow us to escape to? And does this provide pleasure simply for the duration of the reading process? One of the best accounts I’ve come across is by the French publisher, author, translator and bibliophile Jacques Bonnet. In his whimsical book, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, an exploration of books, personal libraries and how they are the repositories of our innermost feelings, he writes: The discovery of reading… penetrated like a shaft of sunlight, through the  gloomy atmosphere of a provincial childhood…  The children, they were, to  put it briefly, daily confronted by the authority principle. To take just one example: in 1967 it was still forbidden to bring a daily newspaper – even serious ones like Le Figaro, Combat, or Le Monde – into a French state lycée.  The tedium of childhood could be fought only by two things: sport and reading. And reading was something like the river flowing through the Garden of Eden… Reading scorns distance, and could transport me instantly into the most faraway countries with the strangest customs. And it did the  same for centuries of the past: I had only to open a book to be able to walk through seventeenth-century Paris, at the risk of having a chamber-pot emptied over my head, to defend the walls of Byzantium as they tottered before falling to the Ottomans, or to stroll through Pompeii the night before it was buried under a tidal wave of ash and lava. I noticed after a while that books were not only a salutary method of escape, they also contained the tools  that made it possible to decode the reality around me…. Escape and knowledge: it all came from books. If reading is purely ‘escapist’ it may be pleasurable, while we’re doing it, but as soon as the book is put down, the experience of pleasure ceases. So, ideally, when we read for pleasure we should enjoy the sense of escape, while at the same time learning something new about ourselves or the world, learning something that we take with us when the book is back on the shelves. This ideal of reading goes back a very long way. Classical writers aspired to just this. Horace claimed of his satires (c.35BC) that his ambition was ‘Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat?’ – ‘What forbids a man to speak the truth in a laughing way?’ or ‘why not tell the truth with a laugh?’  The Satires are a collection of satirical poems which explore the secrets of human happiness and literary ideals. In his Sermones (Latin for "conversations") Horace combines ideas from Greek philosophy with Roman good sense to persuade the reader of the futility and pointlessness of their ambitions and desires. Instead, he proposes a life that is based on the Greek philosophical ideals of inner self-sufficiency and moderation. The form and style of different Sermones vary significantly. In one he illustrates his point by describing a typical day in his own simple, contented life. The second book also addresses the fundamental question of Greek Hellenistic philosophy, the search for a happy and contented life, but here many of the poems are in dialogue form. A series of would-be philosophers expound their philosophies of life. One is a bankrupt art-dealer turned Stoic philosopher. Their accounts, by contrast with the narrator, are shown to be second rate.  Lucian wrote his True History, (2nd c AD) , ‘not merely to be witty and entertaining, but also to say something interesting.’ It begins:Athletes and physical trainers do not limit their attention to the questions of perfect condition and exercise; they say there is a time for relaxation also — which indeed they represent as the most important element in training. I hold it equally true for literary men that after severe study they should unbend the intellect, if it is to come perfectly efficient to its next task.The rest they want will best be found in a course of literature which does not offer entertainment pure and simple, depending on mere wit or felicity, but is also capable of stirring an educated curiosity — in a way which I hope will be exemplified in the following pages.  Commentators disagree as to how to read Lucian. Is it a form of literary criticism, a satire against both contemporary and ancient sources which quote fantastic and mythical events as though they were true? This is the view of most classicists. Critics of modern science fiction, however, play down the satirical reading. What is clear, however, was that Lucian’s stated intention was both to entertain and instruct. Fast forwarding to the sixteenth century there is the example of the martyr Thomas More. The title page of the first edition of his famous Utopia (1516), a slim quarto of 110 pages, reads:    More’s Utopia is a speculative political essay written in Latin. The subject is the search for the best possible form of government. More meets a traveller, in Antwerp, Raphael Hythloday, who has discovered Utopia (‘Nowhere Land’). A pure form of Communism is the general law, education is provided to both men and women, the freest toleration is extended to religion, and marriage is a hallowed institution. Some of More’s wit shows through here as though pre-marital sex is outlawed there is a requirement that the bride and groom view each other naked before they are betrothed to avoid any alarming surprises, or lifelong disappointments. More likens the practice of only seeing the spouse’s body after marriage to buying a horse sight unseen!  I am sympathetic to Lucian’s idea that reading can be more than ‘entertainment pure and simple’. ‘Reading for pleasure’ is more than this. We escape, we are entertained, but we are also changed in whatever small way. We are not exactly the same person as the person we were before we started the book. Something has happened to us. Words have entertained, have allowed us to escape, but something more too: Byron articulates this from the point of view of the poet in his wonderful poem, ‘Don Juan’: But words are things, and a small drop of ink,Falling like dew upon a thought, producesThat which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think. (Stanza 88) And Joseph Conrad writes something similar in the Preface to his The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1899/90):My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask. —  The pleasure of reading is not pure escape. We do escape, and that is often a great solace. But pleasurable reading – a small drop of ink/Falling like dew upon a thought’ (in Byron’s words), also makes us think. Reading Joseph Conrad we escape, but at the same time we are made to hear, feel and see. The pleasure is in the revelation.Thank you  © Professor Belinda Jack 2013

This event was on Tue, 26 Nov 2013

belinda jack

Professor Belinda Jack

Professor of Rhetoric

Belinda Jack is Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She features regularly in the press and media thanks to the...

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