Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Reading and Writing

It's sometimes said that the last nail in the coffin of viable monasticism was the printing press. From the time that manuscripts were no longer copied by hand, the nature of the life changed. There are a number of reasons: the beauty of the work, the texts themselves, the art of illumination, design and creativity, the manual, often repetitive nature of the task, and much more. Creating a manuscript meant that you had to interiorly process the text in a particular way; that it had in some way to pass through the centre of your being. This is even more true with translation. A similar process takes place in writers, who often say that they write to find out what they think.

Creating a parallel text for versions of The Cloud of Unknowing has reminded me once again that if I really want to read a text, to get inside it, I have to type it out. It would be better of course, to copy it by hand, but my hands don't work that well any longer. There is something about putting the text down on paper (or on a screen): the words have to go through you; you internalise them, however fleetingly.

The process puts you into a liminal space, and then, one by one, the little bubbles of insight start popping to the surface: internal resonances of words, multiple meanings, intentions; even, sometimes, a sense of what the author is going to say next: as the text opens up on another level, you sometimes receive a glimmer of what is to come. It's a kind of enchantment that's better than any magic.

The same is true of reading aloud—that is, if you empty yourself and let the words come through you. I find this particularly true of reading the bible. Tomorrow I'm headed for Bath to participate in 400th anniversary celebration reading of the entire King James Bible, which began yesterday at noon and will finish Saturday at noon. I'm not only looking forward to reading; I'm looking forward to extended periods of letting those marvellous rhythms wash over me while others read; I'm looking forward to the great gift of beauty, vision, and majesty that the KJV brings into the ordinary life of anyone who reads it or listens to it, as Adam Nicholson recently remarked.


Anonymous Susan Law said...

I know (at least a little) what you're getting at here - the wonderful changes that occur as one becomes very familiar with a text, by whatever means. But I have to say that I've found it possible to type material without getting any closer to it in the process.

Once I typed up a whole book to give to a friend who would be leaving in a couple of days. The need to type as quickly as possible seemed to route everything from my eyes right into my fingers without spending much time in the thinking parts of my brain. It probably would have been different if I'd had the time to type more slowly.

I've been working a bit with memorization - certainly a very powerful way of opening up a text.

Your blog, by the way, is a delight to read - you know what you're talking about.

4:54 am, March 07, 2011  

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