Driving with Barthes

As a child, I read a lot in the back of cars. My parents, then recent immigrants to the UK, drove regularly across Northern Europe for family and work, and, unlike my sister, I was blessed with a constitution that allowed me to read in any sort of moving vehicle without feeling nauseous. Not every readerly child, of course, grows into a readerly academic, but the “use” of reading to while away the hours of a journey, or for that matter to while away the hours before that journey begins at the bus-stop or airport, is socially ubiquitous, even more so now with mobile phones. Reading while travelling, though, is itself relatively new. Despite the handful of readers in the past who startled their contemporaries with their ability (and desire) to read and walk at the same time—plus ça change—reading on the move needed to wait for the technologies of smooth roads and smooth rails.

The travelling reader highlights the way in which reading is often understood as a displacing activity. Reading’s positive metaphors describe the reader as being absorbed, lost, immersed, forgetting oneself, diving, or escaping into a book. This kind of reading effaces time and place but it is also inward and solipsistic. Thus, reading imposes its own ambience and, as those metaphors suggest, “successful” reading seems to depend on a disembodiment of the reader themself. (Mischievously, one might even say that the birth of this kind of reading comes at the cost of the death of the reader.)

Ambient literature, in contrast, demands both a locative and embodied reading experience and, as such, challenges those assumptions about the “best” kind of literary experience. Reading ambient literature becomes less about a work’s ability to take you away from/into yourself, and more about repositioning you “in the world.” It is a more active, more critical type of reading—what Roland Barthes described as “writerly” as opposed to the passive “readerly” engagement he associated with the traditional realist novel.

Active, critical reading might feel like it should belong in the classroom but that’s to misrepresent ambient literature as some kind of intellectual experiment. The locative and embodied reading experience has to be a pleasurable one, and part of that pleasure should come from the reader’s sense of participation in the work. This is reading as travelling, where the journey is as enjoyable as the destination—perhaps more so.

New technology, then, enabled us to read while traveling; new technology, now, enables us to read as travellers. And if I can return to that small boy lost in a book in the back of the car, ambient literature has the power to transform us from passengers to drivers. The road and the rules are provided for us but otherwise the technical aspects of the experience—how does this work?—are irrelevant. You observe and engage; you are not merely carried along but you actively propel and guide yourself through the work. It is a kind of readerly liberation.

The reader-as-driver is perhaps not the most romantic of analogies, but it is, at least, more familiar and accessible than that of the reader-as-scholar. However, just like driving, this kind of reading needs to be learned. It involves new technological encounters, but, of course, the printed book itself is a technology that just happens to have been introduced to most of us when we were very young. And, just as with driving, initial experiences may be hesitant, frustrating, self-conscious, even slightly dangerous—but learning to read is always going to be like that.

Ian Gadd

Comments are closed.