A little more than a week ago, Jillian (of the wonderful blog A Room of One's Own) asked her readers to recommend texts on literary theory. In her comments, Katherine Cox mentioned a series of Yale lectures available for free online. I am in the midst of trying to finish knitting a wool sweater before it gets to be too hot and humid to knit--and onscreen lectures are just what I need to keep me occupied while I stitch.
This morning I've been watching the fourth lecture, where Professor Paul Fry talks about the work of Wolfgang Iser. Iser, one of the founders of reader-response theory, is especially fascinated in the hermeneutics of reading. That is, he is interested in that conversation that goes on between the author and the reader. The meaning of a text happens in a "virtual" place where the author's ideas and the reader's ideas come together. This place is a place of uncertainty, of flexibility, of openness. There are an infinite number of readings as individual readers come to a book, filling in the gaps between their previous understanding and the text, each in their individual ways.
Prof. Fry states that the "gap" between text and reader is not merely an abyss of unknowing. Instead, it is a place of great productivity. Fry suggests the gap in reading is parallel to the workings of a spark plug. In order to make electricity come into being, the points of contact must be "gapped" or kept apart at a precise distance. The space cannot be too small or too large in order to ignite.
I love this metaphor. When I read a book whose ideas are too far removed from my understanding, I wind up feeling alienated or overwhelmed. On the other hand, if an author does not go beyond what I already have experienced, it is likely to bore me and be quickly forgotten. Iser suggest that there must be "a violation of expectation" that requires the reader to do a bit of work. A book that creates that perfect gap between text and this reader--the place that encourages the electrical currents in my brain to ignite--has the potential to surprise me, open my eyes and transform me.