Reading is something that we all participate in throughout our daily lives. Because reading is such a common activity, many don’t consider what it is that takes place when we read. According to the writing of theorists like Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser, there seems to be an elegant dance that occurs between reader and text during the process of reading. From this dance, the literary text as we know it and analyze it is born.
According to reader-response theorists like Rosenblatt and Iser, the reader is an active agent when it comes to determining meaning from a text. When a reader reads and uses his/her imagination to realize the words on the page, then he/she has created a “virtual dimension of the text” (Iser 284). The virtual dimension of the text, in Iser’s brilliant words is, “not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination” (Iser 284). That is what reading is. Reading is bringing to life the words that are written by the author. The creation of this dimension cannot be completed by the reader without the text, and it cannot be completed by the text without the imagination of the reader, because without that imagination and insight, the words exist within a vacuum.
For Rosenblatt, reading is a transaction made between reader and text. By “transaction” she means that the process of aesthetic reading is an event (Rosenblatt 6). There must be a reader and a text at a specific point in time (Rosenblatt 6). This event is what creates meaning.
Though for most, reading tends to be a filler type activity – an activity that one might take up for want of relaxation and entertainment – it appears that reading is actually an intensely – though perhaps subconsciously – active undertaking. For us traditional folk, “reading” means taking a book off the shelf (or even clicking off of your e-reader’s digital shelf) and sitting down to enjoy the adventure. We enjoy the task of “animating the ‘outlines’” set up by the text (Iser 281). With the emerging digital age, literature (traditional “texts”) are changing shape. Creators of texts/textual bodies can now incorporate multimodal means that allow them to be fairly explicit. If the relationship between a text and a reader is so important in creating meaning and virtual dimensions, as these reader-response theorists suppose, then a morphing body of text/body of work must influence and change the way we read or the way we create meaning.
To test this, I read a hypertext by Shelley Jackson called “my body: a wunderkammer.” This story begins with a sketch of a woman’s body – supposedly Jackson’s body as this was supposedly a semi-autobiographical memoir. You – the reader – are able to click on different parts of this body to get to different stories from Jackson’s life. Within these written stories there are hypertext links that, when indulged in, take you to a different part of the body – a different story. There is no linear thinking in this text. There is not a beginning or an end, and one can very easily become involved in circular tracks. Throughout the our exploration of Jackson’s body, we gain an image of a life.
Reading Jackson’s wunderkammer, though it was completely digital, felt more natural than reading a traditional memoir. I felt as though I was able to more naturally become Jackson than if I were reading her literal diary pages: the hypertext creates memories! I got to leap from memory to memory via the hypertext as if I was truly Jackson in the flesh! It felt as though I was able to experience the text in a much more organic fashion. My imagination suffered no limitation from the digital modality of the work; on the contrary, the virtual dimension the work and I created seemed more real than most others I’ve experienced.
It has long been understood that the text and the reader have a relationship. Together they build worlds and meanings. As technology advances and literature takes new shapes, the relationship must change as well. It will be interesting to see how theorists explain the new dance between readers and texts.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3.2 (Winter 1972): 279-99. Web. 25 June 2015.
Rosenblatt, Louise. “Writing and Reading: The Transactional Theory.” National Center for the Study of Writing. University of California, 1988. Web. 25 June 2015.