If we are to wrestle McLuhan’s turn of phrase from him we can hear, “the medium is the message” applying to the text. Shed the technological aspects of hot and cool media and we can thresh loose the kernel of thought that reads: The mode of conveyance will itself transform the work.
The pleasures of the text are diverse and when read, heard, or witnessed one is engaged in a unique form of experiencing text. The text as read, as orated, or as performed are fundamentally discrete ways of engaging a work. Furthermore, reading is distinct from the latter enactions of text; while reading is private and internal, oration and theatre are both performative. As such, there is a subtle energy to reading some have seen this as a way of gaining inwardness.
It is not for nothing that religions have long made devotional use of literature as spiritual exercise par excellence. It is particular to reading that one is practiced in introspection, one takes up the book with a responsibility that is not present with a public performance. While it could be suggested that a recorded text offers the same text I would counter that it is no longer the same text. Firstly, the context has been changed; one is not required to give the same amount of attention to the spoken word – in reading there is no text without the act of reading itself.
Relatedly, in spoken word the pace of the reading cannot match the subjective pace of appropriation. Reading always corresponds to your mental pacing, one reads and jumps forward and back along the pages, tastes the graphemes. In this way reading affirms one’s subjectivity. The recorded word dulls this furthermore by providing a definite interpretation of the text through inflection, gender of the orator and other vocal qualities which will interact with the listening subject. Thus the reading subject creates where the listening subject is lead by the nose. Reading then is an individualistic activity. I do not want to refer pejoratively to the spoken word; rather, I find it suited for other activities than the creative role of reading.
The spoken word is excellent as an instructive mode of conveyance. By taking a lot of the creative work one is often more free to appropriate the material. The spoken word is given at a pace that can make it very persuasive. Because one does not have the proper time to evaluate what is happening the first judgement of a text is prepared in a brief moment. In Kierkegaard’s famous words “Life can only be understood backwards.” This did not discourage him from the spoken word as he used it in his literature, requesting that a number of his works are made to be read aloud.
He recognized the experiential difference between reading and hearing, making use of the persuasive strength for the sake of edification. While Kierkegaard wrote some things to be orated, a whole genre of literature is made with the performative and more specifically the theatrical in mind. The theatrical goes further that the orated word taking over the world of image as well as the aural from the spectator née listener née reader. The theatrical event, as a spectacle provides a gestalt experience and this is the heart of the theatrical. One is drawn away from the introspective elements and into an experiential form of mimetic empathy. One can certainly empathise with the characters when reading of them but in the theatrical this is magnified by the exclusion of other considerations.
The pathos of theatre is pushed outward. This is why Aristotle wrote that in theatre, namely tragedy one is purged. The external drive of pathos is akin to catharsis. This is a seemingly oxymoronic model of reading in a way, while it appears that more is added to the reading experience many elements of reading are being shed. In the end, it seems that particular aspects of the text are being emphasized. It is for this reason that reading seems the subtlest of enjoyments, textual intercourse, the most intimate of experiences.
Harold Bloom suggests that reading as well follows the law of diminishing returns and if I am correct it is for this reason: When one is younger the building of one’s self is a tremendous undertaking with many milestones. To some extent that necessity dwindles as one goes on. I suspect that more and more nostalgia creeps into the creative aspects of reading, redirecting the pleasure of the text.