Sunday, June 28, 1936

Book-Page Editorial

What Is A Reader?

Answer Is Not He Who Reads Most Books

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: To Cash's definition of a reader from his cultural time might be added for our cultural time this: he or she who understands well that Ringo K. Galaxy, a graduate of Buck Duke's School of Law, follows a certain basketball team who has as its fight song--and has so since the early Seventies--a certain Sixties ditty from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It is called--let me see--what is it called? Something about--yes--something regarding--hmmmm--yes--I do believe--you know?--could it be?--is this what it has come to and is all about? A Devil With a Blue Dress, Blue Dress, Blue Dress, Devil with the Blue Dress . . . On . . . ? And, to top it off, Mr. Galaxy seems grossly, grossly offended by the notion that he or his underlings "held her"--that is that Devil in the Blue Dress. But she did say, Ringo, didn't she? that "You've Really Got A Hold On Me". Didn't she? Ringo? Mebbe, she's been readin' too miny books, huh? Ringo? And then we have Dr. Jeckyl to read--and all about his homewrecking, the worst, most sinister sin of all--possibly worse or equal to murder itself in the minds of the homewreckees, Jeckyl Grey Fox fruitcake. Keep it up boys--and Girl-Babe--and you will get precisely the Government you are asking for.

Whoops--as Mr. Churchill warned, never, ever end a sentence in a preposition or you merely start the whole damned thing over again. Get it? Or are you just too damned dumb to read? Where did you not seeing Jokers get your legal knowledge?--from the one who thinks Alexander Hamilton was the only "President" ever impeached? From the Captain's helm? From royal jersey rustheads? From turncoat Dem. Shippas (or is that Skippa?) with Free On Board delivery to the Shippa-Skippa, to destination, Cash On Delivery? Huh-huh? From the canon's mouth? How about from Alek. J. Hid-ell? Huh? Jekyll. Or maybe from "Deep Throat"--huh? Or maybe you folks did inHale. Man, we sure ah in the rush-ing rapids now, ain't we?

For my money, I'll just keep singing that old, old other more time-worn fight song: "Ah Ziki Zoom-ba, Zoom-ba, Zoom-ba . . ." or maybe even that other, other ultimate jingle, "Hut Sut Rawlson on the Rillerah and a brawla, brawla, soo it". Know what I mean?

Well, Whhhhat's New Pussycat? wohhhhh, woh, wohhhhhh . . .


WHAT is a reader? What do we mean by reading? Why does the reader read?

Silly questions, you will tell me, no doubt. An exercise for the nursery. A reader--why, a reader is obviously and simply a man, a woman, a child--anybody--who reads books. Reading is the act of scanning print with the eye--or recognizing with the mind word-meaning on paper. The reader reads--well, to amuse or instruct himself, does he not?

But I am afraid these answers get no further than the answer which has it that a writer is a man who puts words on paper and succeeds in finding a publisher to print them. I know dozens of people who have read literally hundreds of books without ever once in their lives becoming readers--without ever once actually reading. But now, of course, I am talking about the scatterbrains? the circulation library clientele? those curious people who let their eyes slide over the column of print with what seems the most complete absorption and when you encounter them tomorrow report to you in this wise:

Question: What was that book I saw you reading last evening, my little pussycat?

Answer: I don't exactly remember the title. I never notice titles.

Question: Who was the author?

Answer: I don't exactly remember the author. I never notice authors.

Question: Well, maybe if you'd just tell me the names of some of the principal characters--?

Answer: I don't exactly remember the names. I never notice names.

Question: The big scene, then? Surely you remember that?

Answer: No, I don't remember no big scene.

Question: All right, the plot, the story?

Answer: I don't exactly remember the story. I never notice stories.

Question: What on earth, then, do you do, my little pussy, when you sit so close with a book?

Answer: Me? oh, me? I just read.


I AM talking about the sort of people for whom the printed page apparently acts as a kind of drug--to retire them into a world of inner fantasy and so enable them to kill time painlessly? Or if not wholly about these, then about the ladies and their quaint little book clubs? about people who, having plenty of leisure and money, like honestly to play bridge--or golf--or very and exceedingly rarely, to mind the babies--but who live under the shadow of a dreadful demon called Culture: who feel that people or their--ah--position simply have to make their devoirs to that demon, to exhibit in themselves the sign manual of his cult: who therefore dutifully gather in session, dutifully read papers cribbed from the book section of the Herald-Tribune or the Encyclopedia Brittanica, dutifully hand around the latest tomes and (in part) dutifully read through them?

I am talking about dim-wits or poor unhappy Philistines floundering out of their native element? about people who never read what are called "good books" or people who read them only under the pressure of extraneous considerations? about people who read to impress or because they imagine that Fifteen Minutes a Day will help them put over that big idea in fertilizers which is going to open up before them some day? about poseurs and bragpots and go-getters intent on any end at all but the mere matter of books themselves?

I assure you, however, that I am not merely talking about such as these. Some of the people of whom I speak--some of those who have read their hundreds of books--are remarkable for their powers of attention. When they have done reading, they can tell you title, author, the name of every character, what Fair Rosamond said to Wee Willie Winkle on page 793, line 13 down, what the Queen of Sheba wore at the Bozart Ball, what snappy comeback Sancho made to Voltaire, and precisely who killed Cock Robin. Some of them are professors who have spent their whole lives reading what are called "good books" and drilling the facts about them into the heads of sophomores. And what is more, some of them have a quite genuine love for books--spend all their spare cash for them--finger them and gloat over them--exhibit the same remarkable avidity for ploughing through them that some men exhibit for collecting baseball scores--quote them to you by the yard in unmistakable tones of true enthusiasm, their eyes amorous and worshipping.

And yet--as I have said, they are not actually true readers. At best, they are only, so to say, drunkards of literature.


ON the other hand, I have encountered people who, having read very few books, sometimes only one or two books, were undoubtedly readers in the fullest sense.

Nor am I merely trying to make a paradox to exhibit my own remarkable brilliance. There is no mystery here. It all goes back to that same question which is involved when we ask what makes a writer and what makes a book. And a true writer, as I think I have said once before on this page, is essentially one who has the power in him to strike out of his whole being--intellectual, emotional, and what we mean by spiritual--a vision: to light up with superior insight some more or less great fragment of human experience. And a true book, of course, is simply the embodiment of that vision and that insight.

With that in view, we can pass on to the point. A reader, properly speaking, I think, is simply one who has the capacity--the intellectual and emotional power, the depth of experience--for adequate response: to one book, a dozen books, or a thousand books as the case may be. One who, meeting with any vision or insight which falls within the limits of his own nature and his own experience, has the capacity to seize it for his own. Not bodily and unchanged, oh no. Not as something to be carried about henceforth merely as something known or even felt. But subtly transformed and made over into his own image, made flesh with his flesh and blood with his blood, incorporated within the fabric of his own soul: making him henceforth, not just a more learned man as professors are learned, but a more understanding man, a man whose vision and insight are broader in their own right.


READING? Obviously and simply the process of finding out those fragments which fit with the stream of one's self. The seizing on that which has something opposite to say to one--the casting aside of the vast mass of that which, in the given case, is superfluous and useless.

There is more which might be said. But this is the crux of the matter, I think. To be able to recite Don Quixote or all of Shakespeare, the Book of Ecclesiastes or the Gospel according to St. John--to be able to recite these or any others by heart is nothing. But to carry always immanent in your own vision the vision of Hamlet, of Cervantes, of the unknown of the Bible--nay, often of a single scene or line of Hamlet, a single verse of Ecclesiastes or John, a single episode from the saga of the knight of the rueful countenance: that is everything.

All the rest is only so much toying, so much playing at a game, so much mechanical exercise as meaningless ultimately as any schoolboy's manipulation of quadratics.

Framed Edition
[Return to Links-Page by Subject] [Return to Links-Page by Date] [Return to News--Framed Edition]
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.