Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics / Daniel Coleman -- Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2009

Daniel Coleman's In Bed with the Word is a collection of five short essays on the joy and value of reading.  It is simultaneously unsurprising and ideosyncratic.  That is, Coleman's personal reflections on and experience of reading are employed to draw conclusions that are no doubt widely held by serious readers.

In the first essay, Coleman describes how reading allows us to become connected to experience wider than our own.  Two stories make this point.  The first is of his six year old brother deciding to spend the day "in bed with the Word."  Hence the book's title.  Though not yet literate, his brother understands the way in which books connect us to something beyond our immediate world.  The second story is of an eight  year old girl in Trinidad who, by discovering a book about the 1791 Haitian Revolution, is connected to her own cultural history.  Coleman writes these stories in a compelling way, but their subject is by no means unusual and Coleman brings little new insight to it.

The second and third essays present related ideas.  According to Coleman, serious reading is "countercultural."  It fosters our inclinations toward democratic citizenship and requires that we open ourselves to the prospect of new experiences and learning. Here, Coleman seems to disregard the possibility that we might read deeply in works that we know or expect to confirm our existing beliefs.  Whatever is new in our reading is little more than filling details or adding additional weight to our worldview.  Such an approach to reading might be far more common than Coleman would like to believe.  Coleman's discernibly liberal politics are likely what leads him to his conclusion about reading.

In his fourth essay, Coleman discusses the relationship between the reader and the author, which he describes as one initiated by absence.  The absence, however, is to a great extent overcome when the reader become immersed in the text. The reader becomes to hear the voice of the author intimately in the reader's head and comes into the presence of a "companionable ghost."  It is in this essay that Coleman does reach beyond commonplace observations and makes many interesting points.  He compares the absence relationship, overcome in the act of reading, with the relationship that a theist has with their god, particularly the direct experience that Sufis have of the divine in the course of their whirling dance.

The final essay continues to reflect on the connections between religion and reading in a discussion of reading as "eating the book," an actual practice of some Jews. His point here appears simply to be that to gain the real benefits of reading we must read books "wholly, fully, and slowly, so they become parts of our bodies, the very structure of our lives."  It is an unsurprising claim, but in a world in which our reading is brief, quick, chaotic, and unconnected, it is worth remembering.

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