Navigating a Book

It has probably happened to all of us at some time. We read a book, and we love it. We urge our friends to read it, but when they do, they react to it in a very different way—find it unreadable even. I had always attributed this to different tastes. And then, sometimes a book by an author that I know and like just does not hold my attention, and I don’t quite ‘get into it’ as it were. I attribute this to my ‘mood’ or state of mind.

Interestingly, I recently came across a piece by the famous German author Herman Hesse that helps to explain why this happens. In an essay titled On Reading Books written in 1920, Hesse describes what could be called the ‘taxonomy’ of readers. He argues that just as people have different temperaments and attitudes towards anything in the world, these also affect our personality as readers. He outlines three key types of reader personalities, which can coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime.

The first type he calls the naive reader—“one who assumes that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and who experiences a book merely as content.” Such a reader consumes a book as he consumes a loaf of bread, or sleeps because there is a bed.

The second type of reader is one “who is endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. For such a mind the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field.” This kind of reader may be described as an imaginative investigator.

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter: “He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.”

“This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can …play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought”.

Before we begin to analyse where we fit into this taxonomy, Hesse reminds us that “no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types. Each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself.”

He goes on to urge “For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written.”