Below Philip Davis, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, combines science with literature to convince us to read out loud more often. To read his other blog posts click here. This piece first appeared in Moreover.
I have just launched a new M.A. course in bibliotherapy—by which I mean to ask, What help can reading provide for people? But I am not allowed to call the course “M.A. in bibliotherapy” because some of scientists at my university were not too keen on the word, accepted though it is in the States. I think they confused it with aromatherapy, when in the great words of the poet Gray, on the neglect of lowly human worth:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Not all the scientists are so sniffy. I am currently enjoying a collaboration with Professor Neil Roberts who runs MARIARC, the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analyisis Research Centre at the University of Liverpool. We are using brain-scanners to test they hypothesis that Shakespeare’s syntax—the sheer shape of his thinking—locks into existing mental pathways and shifts them to dramatic effect. For experimental purposes, we concentrate on one of Shakespeare’s intuitive linguistic tools known as “functional shift” or “word class conversion”.
It means the sudden shift of a word from being, say, a noun to becoming a verb, with minimal change to its form. Thus, from Coriolanus:
Fall down and knee / The way into his mercy
This last old man . . . Loved me above the measure of a father, / Nay, godded me, indeed.
It is being written up as a scientific paper, and in the meantime there’s a fuller preliminary account of the experiment in The Reader, number 23. But the point is that the brain seems to surge with excitement at the onset of those key words, without any damage to its sense of overall meaning.
That surge is to do with emotion as well as attention, I guess, as a higher level of consciousness emerges out of the meaningful confusion between noun and verb that goes on at neural level. That surge means we should not be scared that brain science is inherently reductive. Because what it means in Shakespeare is that thoughts come out of a fundamental physical excitement—an excitement that is always in excess of any subsequent tame conceptualization of it. That is why literature feels so live, so alive as a way of thinking.
And what we investigate at the level of hard-wiring, we also work at in terms of practice or what sociologists call soft outcomes. We have an extensive out-reach programme which is part of the Bibliotherapy project in Liverpool, taking reading out of the university and into the community—to libraries and hospitals and drug centres, to the unemployed, the sick, and the aged. Run by my wife, Jane Davis (we have much to talk about in our evenings at home), the project goes by the name of Get Into Reading.
Here is a snapshot from one of the case studies. A project-worker, Katie Peters, has been reading in an old people’s home to aged people, many of whom are suffering from mental impairment, including dementia. But her reading out-loud of poetry, in particular, does find a way through. One poem she brought along was a First World War poem—Isaac Rosenberg’s “Returning, We Hear the Larks”. It is about a soldier returning from the horrors of the Front and hearing something very ordinary —the song of larks unseen in the night. But one lady kept repeating and repeating just one important line: “But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy!”
Ordinary joy, yet strange to find it again after such misery. The woman had her own war-field. Staff in the home reported that the woman ate a meal that day for the first time in a long time.
The key method in Get Into Reading is what needs to be adopted by any reading group, formal or informal. Forget opinions; eschew chit-chat after the event; get the brain involved in the lived and shared thing; above all, READ ALOUD together.