Gregory Jusdanis, one of the more astute bloggers at Stanford's Arcade, has an interesting post on the experience of listening to an audiobook of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had his doubts about the experience – he listened to the audiobook while driving – but it seems to have transformed his sense of what a book, a text, is.
As the waves of the story reverberated through the car, I felt myself pulled into Twain’s world, incapable of maintaining the critical distance permitted by writing. When reading you gain perspective by closing your eyes, even for a second, moving them up or down, daydreaming perhaps, or concentrating on the distinction between your universe and that imagined one.
Ah, critical distance, lost. That's the curse of reading as a professional critic, you're always looking out for the critical opportunity, having thoughts of your own, and so pulling away from the text itself.
His Big Paragraph:
But I am saying that the institution of literature, which is partly a product of print, has converted the orality and aurality of human expression into written text. Derrida has argued that the logocentric tradition of the West has privileged the living voice over the dead letter. But with respect to literature the opposite is true. The critical practices of the last two centuries have transformed diverse artifacts from epic to lyric, originally functioning as oral poetry, into material for private reading. For two centuries, the “authentic” high literary experience has been hushed, austere, and monastic.
Let me repeat that penultimate sentence: "The critical practices of the last two centuries have transformed diverse artifacts from epic to lyric, originally functioning as oral poetry, into material for private reading."
"Into material for private reading" indeed. And for individualistic explication, where each critic must have his or her own reading, and where the multiplicity of readings is taken either as evidence of the text's richness or, once upon a time 40 years ago, as a problem to be wrestled with. A sense of the communal function and existence of literature as been, if not quite lost, diminished and distorted. For it is literature's communal value that was at the center of the so-called canon wars, it is that communal value that underscores the existences of identity-based critical practices. But always it is the individual critic speaking on behalf of a bereaved group, or speaking against a hegemonic group.
What we need is a deeper understanding of how texts create community through their capacity to coordinate and couple minds. A criticism based in meditation on private reading is a difficult point from which to launch such a criticism.
Addendum: From a post by Laurie Winer, Pride and Paragon: Listening to George Eliot's "Middlemarch":
What I hadn’t anticipated, even after I found a worthwhile voice (female) to tell me the tale of Isabel Archer, was that on this earth walk certain readers who illuminate a text more than any first-time reader possibly could. The experience of listening to these artists is akin to seeing an expert production of a play, where so much interpretive work is done for you, without taking anything from you. I learned this when I encountered Juliet Stevenson’s astounding delivery of George Eliot’s Middlemarch on Naxos AudioBooks.
H/t Rohan Maitzen.