Phenomenological Theory: Explanations for Nameless Phenomena

Wolfgang Iser’s text The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach offers insightful interpretations as to how we as readers respond to a literary work. Just as a deer caught in the headlights might understand the car to be approaching at a rate that renders the deer incapable of reaction, so too do readers fall victim to an author’s mechanisms. If a literary work is successful, the text is the car, and, in a sense, we readers are the deer, able to comprehend the totality of our experience only after the fact.

“That gives [the reader] the chance to have an experience in the way George Bernard Shaw once described it: ‘You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something’” [1].

This feeling of loss encapsulated in Shaw’s quote is an invaluable experience for a reader, regardless of how undesirable it may seem. In retrospect, this describes exactly how I have felt upon reaching the last word of a great novel. That raises the questions: why is this so and how does it happen?

Iser’s descriptions interpret this concept quite well, elucidating two main losses that a reader may experience: that of his/her own sense of present time, and that of his/her identity. Through the act of experiencing literature, a reader becomes entangled and loses sense of reality; “the text becomes his ‘present’ whilst his own ideas fade into the ‘past’” [2]. Iser describes this phenomenon not just as helpful, but as essential to a reader’s understanding of the text. If the text is a success, the reader cannot help but to become fully engrossed to the point where his/her sense of time and presence within it have evaporated. Indeed, authors may go about invoking this reaction in an audience by allowing the reader to fill in the gaps in his/her own way [3], thereby imparting a new perspective into the text. The impact that a reader might experience fully depends upon the extent to which he/she fills in those gaps [4]. Therefore, the process by which a reader may lose him/herself depends upon the author’s willingness to leave gaps in the text and the reader’s commitment to filling them.

Additionally, Iser writes that the unique act of reading causes a loss of identity in a reader and the possibility for absorption of experiences that are not one’s own [5]. Reading allows us to enter “another mental world” in which we pronounce “I” when we do not mean ourselves [6]. Because of this, we as readers can be brought to tears as a tragedy in a novel unfolds or feel personally affronted when characters clash. Iser interprets this phenomenon as “the point at which author and reader converge” which enables a reader to “bring to life the ideas formulated by the author,” and can only be successful under the conditions that the author’s biography and the reader’s “individual disposition” be shut out of the text [7]. If all of this is successful, the author’s own thoughts become the thoughts of the reader, and the reader may experience the feeling of loss described in Shaw’s quote.

While it may seem trivial to spend time gathering intelligence on the subject of reading, understanding the nature of the effects a text can have on a reader may allow us to interpret the importance of literature as a whole. Through understanding the individual act of reading, we may begin to answer questions as to why the study of book history is so important.  


[1]: 296          [4]: 287

[2]: 295          [5], [6]: 297

[3]: 285          [7]: 298


5 thoughts on “Phenomenological Theory: Explanations for Nameless Phenomena

  1. Very nice. I enjoyed the section on “loss of identity”. In your opinion, what are some of the “questions as to why the study of book history is so important”?

  2. I would have liked to expand on the idea of phenomenological theory lending to our understanding of the importance of book history, but instead I decided to focus on what compelled me most about Iser’s text itself. In answer to your question, it is my opinion that phenomenological theory emphasizes the effect of literature on a particular reader, and it is this effect that helps us recognize how literature itself is unique and deserving of our attention. In other words, our reasons for studying books and their history lie with the undisputed fact that books have been important to people in many different ways throughout history.

    Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, the link between book history and phenomenological theory exists within the “gaps” that Iser continuously mentions. Perhaps Iser would like to read an account by a reader as to how he/she filled in these “gaps.” A book historian, however, would take the same reader’s “gap-filling” (for lack of a better word) and draw conclusions as to what this says about the reader’s environment during that time period that caused the reader to fill the gaps in such a way.

    This is a bit of what I think about how the two link up. Do you agree or disagree? Have you thought about explanations other than these?

  3. I think the idea of ‘loss’ that you mention in the beginning of your post is an interesting idea. I have never really thought about reading having any sense of loss. If anything, I think I have more likely thought the opposite. When I read a book (especially one that I like) I feel like I am gaining something–knowledge, insight, or even just a good time and entertainment. Regardless of what it is, I feel like I leave the finishing of a book with more than when I picked it up off the shelf. However, I think there is a certain feeling of loss mixed in with this gain. I’m not exactly sure what this emotion is (as we saw with Iser, the ability to describe reading is complex and often hard to follow…), but there is maybe an ’emptiness’ that comes with finishing a really good book. You get so invested in the characters, you fall in love with story, and then it ends. Just ends. In this moment of turning the last page I think that the reader is at its most vulnerable. When reading a story I do think that a reader has some power–we bring to the story out own experiences, and in turn shape the world that the author has created for us. However, when the book ends there is nothing left to manipulate–the author is in complete control. Most of this post is conjecture (and maybe even ramble), but I’m really sparked by the idea of ‘loss’. I feel that books are like a generous lover–they give more than they take. But what is it that they are taking?

  4. I agree. I don’t think they meant feeling empty upon finishing a book simply because you’ve come to the end of a journey. The loss is more like what you experience when you’ve learned something that’s deeply impacted you and displaces what you thought was true. That’s what I interpreted it as.

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