Sunday, August 19, 2007


The first thing I did after buying a plane ticket to Europe the summer after my super-senior year in college was to launch my search for the perfect paperback. It needed to be long -I was going to be gone for close to a month- and light -I was only carrying a backpack. It needed to be interesting enough for me to bear reading, but not so riveting that I'd be tempted to hole up in the hostel with it and not actually, well, travel.

I settled on a pocket classics edition of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. And it was, for that trip, exactly right. She was traveling; I was traveling. She was an American in Europe; so was I. The plot proceeded at a stately pace- and so did the trains.

Now I'm reading James again, except this time I'm stationary. James's prose is the same: dense, marvelously circuitous, forever toying with some feeling a fingersbreadth away But I've altered, or at least my physical surroundings have, and there is something about reading peripatetically that's different from reading at home.

Well, you ask, so what?

Let's look at it from another angle. Musicians have long considered not only the work of art itself, but a person's experience of it. That's what's at the root of the vogue for "authentic" performances -that is to say, performances which, for the listener, hew as closely as possible to either a) the intention of the composer or b) the experience of an audience member at the time of composition. (There's a whole delightful war in there, but I'll leave it be.)

Yet, no similar impulse towards "authentic" experience has even been breathed of for reading. This either points up the ridiculousness of the whole "authenticity" enterprise, or raises an interesting set of questions. (Or both.) To what extent is reading a "performance?" Is the reader's role that of performer, audience, or some combination thereof? Did James have a set of "intentions" or expectations for what his readers would experience, and if so, to what extent do they matter? What about the norms (semantic, syntactic, societal) of James's time, and the way these shaped the book's initial readings?

Among the most salient features, for me, of James's writing is its density. The average syntactic complexity of James's constructions is noticeably higher than the average syntactic complexity of the constructions of modern authors. As a modern reader, I'm forced to slow down and pay close attention to the unraveling of every sentence. If I'd grown up reading James and his contemporaries, though, I might breeze through every tangled clause. Instead of slow and dreamlike, James's books might seem sharp and fast-paced.

Then again, maybe not.

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