The Reader as Musician

I ran across the following quote from author Zadie Smith on Steven Schenkenberg’s blog this weekend, and had to post it here, so you guys could see it.

Her insight about the reading process is nicely put, and proves that I’m not the only one who can’t help using musical analogies to talk about reading and writing, which certainly doesn’t hurt. 😛 She was speaking on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm program, and they began discussing the fact that her novels and characters are sometimes misread (an interesting notion in itself, which has come up in class from time to time…). Ultimately, she had this to say:

I think of reading as a skill and an art…But the problem with readers, the idea we’ve been given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principal is, ‘I should sit here and be entertained.’

And the more classical model is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and the artist gives you.

That’s an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true. 

It resonated, I suppose, since we’ve been talking about this concept of interpretation, and how it develops with experience. As beginners, we can plunk our way through fiction and be entertained, certainly; but as we widen our experience and become more accomplished, we bring much more to bear on our end of the deal—we can interact with the author in more complex ways.

So go grab a book and get practicing, you! 😉