Under a fig-tree in a Milanese garden in the summer of 386 and in the throes of existential anguish, a prostrate and sobbing Aurelius Augustine — or, as we know him now, St Augustine — heard the voice of a child:
“Pick up, and read, pick up and read” [tolle lege, tolle lege] At once my countenance changed. . . . I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I may find. . . . So I hurried back to the place that Alypius [Agustine’s companion] was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle [St Paul] when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (Rom. 13: 13–14).
I neither wished not needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.
Then I inserted my finger or some other mark in the book and closed it. (St Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.152–3)
This is one of the most famous moments of reading in western culture. For twenty-first century readers, the easy familiarity of this reading experience — who has not read a book outside? — intensifies the power of Augustine’s moment of revelation. However, in a fourth-century context, the episode reveals Augustine’s exceptionality. He was a highly literate individual, he owned books, and he handled them with remarkable casualness: despite the sacred nature of the words they contained, these were not precious objects. His copy was a codex (that is, a bound volume, not a scroll) and he read the passage silently rather than out loud — both features of the reading experience that were still establishing themselves in this period.
The episode underlines both Augustine’s privilege and modernity, but it is also striking how embodied and situated his reading experience was. He was outside (“[w]e sat down as far as we could from the buildings”), in the garden of his lodgings (“We had the use of it . . . for our host, the owner of the house, was not living there”), with his friend Alypius (who had “followed me step after step” but “[a]though he was present, I felt no intrusion on my solitude”) (p.146). Moreover, the child’s voice he hears instructs him not just to read, but to pick up the book. (There is an echo of this imperative in Kate Pullinger’s Breathe, written for the Ambient Literature project and published in January: the opening page reads “Pick up your phone[.] I’m ready.”)
One of the working definitions for “ambient literature” that the project has been using relates to “situated writing practices in which text is able to respond to the place of reading.” Paul’s epistles — notwithstanding their author’s own locative multimedia experience — were not intended as works of ambient literature, as texts written to be written for and read in a specific place. But for Augustine, this was an ambient literary experience: the text responded to him in a particular place at a particular moment. Moreover, the child’s voice (real or imagined) and the words as written combined, in a kind of sortes vergilianae, to speak directly to him.
The book that Augustine picked up was the same one that had been earlier lying “on top of a gaming table” in the lodgings when a visitor had
picked it up, opened it, and discovered, much to his astonishment, that it was the apostle Paul. . . . He was amazed that he had suddenly discovered this book and this book alone open before my eyes. (p.142)
For this reader too, the book prompts a powerfully situated reading experience but it is a moment of dislocation, the incongruent juxtaposition of sacred text and profane pastime which, of course, helps anticipate Augustine’s own re-encounter with the same work.
These two different reading experiences remind me of the words of D. F. McKenzie that
for better or for worse, readers inevitably make their own meanings. In other words, each reading is peculiar to its occasion, each can be at least partially recovered from the physical forms of the text, and the differences in readings constitute an informative history. (D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.19)
The work of ambient literature isn’t just that of the author, the artist, the editor, the designer, the coder, the sound recordist, or indeed the dozen of other highly skilled and creative individuals who have been involved in the making of the three compositions for our project. It is also the work of every reader who encounters these and other works of ambient literature. It is why the research part of our project has focused as much on readers as the makers and the technologies, and why there will be a chapter on the history of “situated reading” in the book that we are now writing.
Just like that child’s voice drifting across an Italian summer’s day almost 1750 years ago, ambient literature will always address a reader in a particular place at a particular moment: “Pick up and read; pick up and read.”