As the school year commences, for teachers if not students, welcome to the first page of my main copy of Marlowe‘s Edward II. [a]
Why am I showing you this?
Because today I wanted an education-based quotation, and also wanted to think about the question, ‘what, exactly, is a text?‘
The simplest answer I can come up with is this:
‘A text is a conversation between a writer and a reader’
Without a reader, any text is simply an inert, inanimate object, like a telly on standby. Actually, my answer is a little more complex: a text is more of a round-table discussion. We’ve got authorial intention and techniques, and reader responses. Reader responses, plural, refers not simply to different individuals, but to different times in a reader’s life. ‘Bring your baggage to the table’, I repeatedly exhorted an A Level class when we studied Carol Ann Duffy‘s The World’s Wife. And your baggage varies as you get older – your response to a text changes with life experience, with the other texts you read, with the purpose of your reading. Each of those iterations of you, as a reader, is a different voice, a different personality, at the table.
The poet Inua Ellams has something interesting to say on this conversation between writer and reader.
I never trust readers. No poet should. Mistrust is the small print in the contract between poet and reader. Antonio Porchai [the Argentinian poet] said: “I know what I have given you, I do not know what you have received.” I expect my audiences at best to only grasp a palpable fraction of what I mean to communicate. To trust them, they will have to have lived my life, and they should only trust me if I have lived theirs. [b]
Let’s move on a bit. I nearly always buy my books second-hand, if I can, and I adore the little random annotations and other things I occasionally come across in them (the best find so far was a letter from the poet Walter de la Mare, carefully tucked in a book of his poems). This comes from my A Level module handbook for new Year 12 students:
A properly-used A Level text will end up drowned in annotations, heavily ‘foxed’, and possibly held together by sellotape. Cherish it.
These annotations are parts of that conversation, of that amalgam. You can see, by my count, at least five different versions of me engaging with Edward II in the photograph above. There’s an ongoing, ‘nourishing’ (to use Brinda Charry‘s word, below) and ‘enriching’ (to use mine) debate going on here. Who’s at the table, and what baggage did they bring with them?
- Christopher Marlowe (and, I guess, his typesetter);
- Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey (you can see me engaging with their footnotes); and
- those various iterations of ME:
- the excited university student of about a decade ago, who wrote ‘Guess who I shagged last night?!‘ on the opposing blank page in bright red gel pen, suggesting Gaveston was a gold-digger, the equivalent of a girl who bags a premier league footballer nowadays;
- the sightly more sober, darker red pen of the guy – still ME, remember, but a different me – who was beginning to analyse the speech a bit more, dividing it into sentences, and so on. Perhaps I was in a seminar, or working towards an essay or exam at this stage – this voice will have been influenced by the voice of Dr Raymond Salter, my outstanding tutor;
- the blue pen of the A Level teacher – still ME – probably three years ago, looking for semantic fields and examining the meter of the text, hence counting syllables and quibbling over pronunciation;
- the black biro of the guy – still ME – who agreed with all of the above, and still wanted to interject something important about Gaveston’s motives; and
- the nutter armed with a highlighter – still ME – who essentially shouted a couple of things and left (there’s no sign of him on page 6 onwards …
It might sound like navel-gazing, but if you can engage with the ‘why?’ of your responses, the study of literature builds self-awareness as one of its many bonus soft-skills: it goes with the territory of informed reader response. All those voices will, of course, feed into my conversations with my students, as I begin teaching the play again to Y12. Even Dr Salter’s – they’ll hear echoes of his voice, once removed, in what I say and how I say it.
Which brings me, finally, to this week’s quotation – you can blame Brinda Charry for sparking my meanderings. I think it was the word ‘relationship‘ that kicked it off – the paradox that reading silently, or reading alone, is still a very social thing to do.
Renaissance readers took reading seriously. Humanist education emphasized reading as an art to be mastered. Students were trained to pay attention to grammar, rhetoric, style and the morals imparted by a text. Reading was intellectual work as well as a pleasurable pastime and a means of improving oneself and society. It was a way of conversing with the world and also with the past. Through books, readers could engage in a nourishing relationship with those who read and wrote before them. More and more people were also reading ‘silently’ (i.e. not reading aloud) and reading in solitude. Reading alone meant that one could interpret a work for oneself without mediating figures like teachers and priests shaping interpretation. Renaissance readers were also ‘active’ readers – they were encouraged in school to write on books and so wrote with pen in hand, correcting errors, underlining words they did not understand, glossing terms, marking memorable passages, commenting and often just doodling. [c]
What does a text mean to you?
[a] Christopher Marlowe, Edward II (ed. Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey (New Mermaids, second edition), (A&C Black: London, 1997)
[b] Inua Ellams, in The Guardian, 02 September 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/sep/02/kate-tempest-observer-new-review-seven-questions-for-seven-poets
[c] Brinda Charry, The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama: An Introduction with Primary Sources (Arden Shakespeare), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)