Along With the Fading Light

Yesterday evening I started reading a short story. I was seated on the floor by the window in the room where we usually eat. The light of a slowly dying sun fell lazily through the glass, illuminating the turning pages.

About half-way through the story, as the sun entered its final throes, my wife entered the room and enquired whether I wanted a light turning on. The increasingly dim light was putting a strain on my eyes, I could not deny it, and yet I said ‘no’. I was adamant, I was insistent, I was direct. I did not want a light turning on.

Why? The answer is simple. I had started the story by the sun, and I was determined to finish it by the sun. Just as there is a narrative inside every book, so is there one outside. The appearance of a harsh, unnatural light would destroy the atmosphere. It would intrude upon the reading experience in a most unpleasant way. No, I had to go on as I had started. I would continue reading by the moon, if need be (need didn’t be: I completed the story shortly after sunset).

Now, I would be lying if I said that this was the first time this had happened to me. As a young man I had a very similar experience, which I recounted to my late mentor Johannes Speyer – a well-known expert on reading and its processes. He was, of course, deeply interested in my case – and praised me for my resistance to the intrusion of light. He warned me, nonetheless, against making a habit of reading in this way. ‘You have learnt something from your experiences,’ he explained, ‘but the lesson will be lost if you repeat it over and over. Expand the experience. Learn a new lesson’.

What he meant was that, wonderful as it was to read with the fading light, this was only one way of getting something out of a story. The next step was obvious. I should re-read the story, but in different circumstances. This time, I should anticipate the death of the sun by turning on the light before I started. The following evening I might consider mixing the two experiences: start with no light, only to switch one on mid-way. The evening after that, I might try the opposite: start with light and finish in the gloom. After that, I should consider re-reading the story in the morning, then the afternoon, then the middle of the night, then…

Speyer’s system, needless to say, was an exhaustive one. ‘Read, re-read, and re-read again’, was his mantra, which is a remarkable idea in theory, but a tricky prospect in practice. Yesterday evening I started reading a short story. Will I be re-reading it this evening? We shall see…

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