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’” .
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’” . 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 , 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 . 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 . Reading allows us to enter “another mental world” in which we pronounce “I” when we do not mean ourselves . 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 . 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.
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