When we read, we re-make ourselves. When we watch video, we do too–somewhat.
This is one of the intriguing notions that Sven Birkerts puts forward in his book, TheGutenberg Elegies. He speaks mainly of reading novels, but implies that we do some self re- making in other kinds of reading as well. Mr. Birkerts suggests that the experience one has when reading a novel is as much a product of the reader’s life experience as of the novelist’s artistry.

The novelist may write, “Jane sees a large lazy cat.” When the reader’s eyes scan these words, her mind projects cats she has met that fit the description, more or less. She might settle on the image of one large, lazy, long-haired, black-and-white, mean-spirited cat with a bitten-off tail that ran into her as it darted out of an alley. Now, whenever the novelist mentions this cat, the reader sees the torpid tom of her experience–or a cat looking much like the tom.

Expand this notion to all the characters, settings and actions portrayed in the novel, and you’ll see why Birkerts claims the novel is really a collaborative work made between writer and reader. The text of the novel evokes a steady stream of images, feelings, sounds and even smells from the reader’s own memory. The reader clothes the text with the substance of his or her own experience. In the end, the reader reads personal experiences transformed into other lives, other places, other events. He sees in the novel his own life as someone else might have lived it, or his life as someone else might see it.

This would also explain why a book changes every time you return to it. The pool of life experience from which you draw when reading Bleak House at 40 is fuller than it was when you read it as an 11th-grade English assignment. The book itself, then, resonates differently. Characters, actions and motives that lay in the background decades ago step into the limelight now. Things important then seem less so now.

Birkerts calls the act of reading the re-making of selves. He says, once we have seen our own experience re-shaped in a book, the experience of the book becomes part of our life experience. To some extent, we have absorbed the re-made traits as though they were always our own and dramas as though we have lived through them.

To use Birkerts theory, we re-make ourselves when we view videos, but less so than we do with books. The written word depends on the memory and imagination of the reader for its color, sound and life. The moving talking image gives us all of these directly. It imposes more of the writer’s and director’s imaginings and asks less of the viewers’. Another symptom of “video epilepsy” (see November 1994 “Pause”): the viewer’s memory and imagination are largely disarmed and replaced by the medium’s own.

Still, a viewer absorbs a video like a reader absorbs a book. He takes it in as an alternative script for his own life. The video “script” asks less of the viewer’s own experience than the book does the reader’s. The video dictates when the book elicits. Both the author of books and the maker of videos seek to transform, if only in small ways, the lives of their audiences. The Pen plays tennis with the reader, depending greatly on the reader’s own volleys for the final result. The Camcorder fires a cannon through the net.

Should every story have a moral?

Well, since you asked: Watch what you say and how you say it.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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