By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in

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Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931

 

solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.

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Comments
  1. vjoshi911 says:

    Thank you for sharing!

    Vijay

    On Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 9:37 AM, “The Flâneurs Turtle” wrote:

    > theflaneursturtle posted: “By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. The > other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, > Dialogue With Death. Koestler was an important 1930s > journalist/novelist/intellectual. As with many of his generation, he was a > leftist w” >

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