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Each one of us contains many reading selves

Within every reader, there are at least three identities: the Child, the Critic, and the Learner.

September 24, 2022 / 07:09 AM IST
Of our three reading selves, it is the Child that first realises what words on a page can do. (Representational image: Johnny McClung via Unsplash)

Of our three reading selves, it is the Child that first realises what words on a page can do. (Representational image: Johnny McClung via Unsplash)


According to the Buddhist masters, the concept of an individual self is an illusion. What we think of as a fixed identity is, if you look closely enough, an ever-changing stream of habits, thoughts, and sensations. For Matthieu Ricard, the self is “a mental or verbal designation attached to the body and the consciousness”. It is “merely an idea”.

Moving from the sublime to the everyday, the same concept can be applied to our reading self. We aren’t simply one type of reader; all of us house many reading selves.

Buddhists also love lists: their scriptures are full of them. In that spirit, one could claim that within us, there are at least three reading personas. There is the Child, marvelling at the portal of the printed page. There is the Critic, who assesses and compares. And there is the Learner, eager to absorb new information.

When we read, one of these selves does the work while the rest look over its shoulder, so to speak. Freudians who haven’t yet lapsed could, I suppose, map these onto the id, ego, and superego, although inexactly.

Of these reading selves, it is the Child that first realises what words on a page can do. The journey begins with four of them: “Once upon a time.” After that, as Emily Dickinson observes, there’s no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.

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Many retain memories of such first encounters. Alberto Manguel recalls: “I believed in sorcery, and was certain that one day I’d be granted three wishes which countless stories had taught me how not to waste. I prepared myself for encounters with ghosts, with death, with talking animals, with battle; I made complicated plans for travel to adventurous islands on which Sinbad would become my bosom friend.”

The Child stays with us throughout; it is this self that is enthralled by adventures, mysteries, fantasies, and speculative universes. Later on, some of us call such reading a guilty pleasure when it is, in fact, an attempt to recapture that rapture.

From the Child is born the Critic. This is the reading self that compares and passes judgement. To take a leaf from Anne Fadiman’s comments on re-reading, the Child shuts out the world in order to focus on the story; the Critic drags in the world in order to assess it.

The Critic takes what the Child is impressed by and holds it up to subjective standards. Are the characters believable? Is the plot recycled? Is the language appropriate? This reading self is drawn to other work that lives up to such assumptions.

A society’s power relations complicate matters. Take colonialism. Languages become separated into those that are imposed and others that are local. Types of plots and characters become the standard. To the Child, it can appear that the magical events portrayed in books can only happen elsewhere, and to others.

In Anjana Appachana’s Listening Now, a daughter brought up on a diet of Western stories listens to her father’s Indian tales in disbelief. In Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth, a childhood friend makes up stories of a boy and a girl with Westernised names who fight smugglers and find buried treasure. (“Kartik said Indian names didn’t sound proper.”)

Attitudes to gender and skin colour are other complications. Sartre once wrote that in books, he encountered a universe that was “digested, classified, labelled, meditated”. Which gives rise to the question: who is doing the organising and why? Thus, the Child reads Jane Eyre and the Critic moves on to Wide Sargasso Sea.

What of the Learner? This is the part of our composite reading self that is the most practical and functional. It sees reading as a way to find answers and make progress. The Learner seeks solutions, and tries to make the world better for himself and others.

In cases where education is replaced by memorisation, the Learner can override the Child and the Critic. Reading becomes worthwhile only for practical benefits.

Obviously, acquiring knowledge is worthwhile, but books are so much more than repositories of instruction. One reason for a reading block could well be that the voices of the Learner and the Critic drown out that of the Child.

It’s when the reader gives it meaning that a writer’s work is truly complete, claims the school of literary theory known as reader-response criticism.

Texts are thus created through the process of reading. However, when many reading selves combine, interpretations become unstable. The Child could stay the same while the Critic and the Learner grow and change.

Vivian Gornick, for instance, has written of her discovery that the female characters in the books she read when younger were “stick figures devoid of flesh and blood”, designed to thwart or advance the fortunes of the protagonist who was almost always male.

Pico Iyer recalls reading The Virgin and the Gypsy in school and being struck by D.H. Lawrence’s “heroic energy, his unvarnished romanticism” in a tale about “a young and inexperienced soul awakening to its destiny.” Re-reading it years later, he finds “a cry for release from the stifling puritanism and hypocrisies of English provincial life.”

The rise and development of our reading selves are also the stories of our lives. Our reactions to books show what we have been influenced by, what we have stayed true to, and what has changed. Virginia Woolf, for one, knew this well.

“To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year,” she observed in a 1916 essay, “would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know”. We start reading to discover other worlds; as we continue to turn the pages, we discover ourselves.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Sep 24, 2022 07:00 am
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