The Danger in Reading

Reading is dangerous, and writing even more so. The powers of words to convince, move, and alter reality into the shape of its masters' intents and experimentations have been documented time and again. Harold Brodkey's Reading, the Most Dangerous Game attempts, in a haphazard, overly-scholarly manner to detail these cautions, without incorporating the visceral danger within his own words. I have always been a firm believer in the power of parallelism-- whereas one's words take on the qualities of what they describe, denying the natural separation of sign and signified. Reading remains a popular, effective, and pregnant medium with which to communicate ideas and manipulate minds for good or ill. The traditions of subtle, non-immediately interpretable analysis and observation continue within its act like a silent but deadly force.

William S. Burroughs explores the danger inherent within the word by equating it to a virus. The Electronic Revolution begins, "In the beginning was the word and the word was god and has remained one of the mysteries ever since." (1) The mystery is at root in that humans "make information available to future generations." The crucial distinction between humankind and animals is this then.

Burroughs then explores his interpretation of what the word is. His theory is that written word was the virus that made spoken word possible, infecting human beings in "a state of stable symbiosis with the host." (2) He believes this state is currently about to decay into a parasitic relationship. And though going further on this line of argument as defended by the so-called literary outlaw would be interesting, it may prove irrelevant to my case-- still, knowing this background one can say that the word is dangerous. "Viruses," states Mechanisms of Virus Infection (as quoted by Burroughs, 2), "are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependant upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living." In other words, a virus requires a stable superstructure to develop. So, considering the loaded gun metaphor of the written word, reading becomes even more dangerous-- it becomes a matter of life-or-death for the species collectively, a parasitic relationship has been established-- the virus needs to be read. It must mutate or die.

Most books sold are meant to sublimate the reader, to calm their stress-filled lives with an almost euphoric haze. "It is unlikely that (the virus') presence would be readily detected," (3) being subliminal in nature. And in speculation, this sublimation, if it were an intentional conspiracy by the virus itself, could leave it open for a later, more sophisticated attack. In Greg Bear's Blood Music, just such an attack occurs: a virus becomes intelligent, creating a virtual city inside those it inhabits, quickly learning to meld reality into a medium by which it would most likely survive. But this is fiction, these ideas, likely would be considered also fictive, impossible.

As a hypothesis though, there are many examples to illustrate. In fact, the very ability to offer examples about the meta-process of the word devouring its readers is a postmodern condition, itself an illustration of the evolution of the virus. It is both the symptom and the disease. Many speak of the "postmodern condition" as if it were some kind of joke, an impossibility-- "modernity is a current situation, by definition" they might say, "and thus post (or after) modernity is unseen by the current generation." Could this just be an expression of the virus; the continuance of mankind's chronic separation of the sign and the signified? Are the human beings who, not allowing themselves to identify with the self-referential nature of the postmodern word, merely not yet infected with the contemporary mutated word virus?

It is also possible to speak of the dangers in reading outside of this codification and identification with what could essentially be considered an inflated metaphor (not to weaken its argument). Reading also becomes dangerous because of its closeness to madness, or its potential to express and project madness. Consider the literary work of Gertrude Stein, or Philip K. Dick's VALIS, Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee, and Robert Anton Wilson's Schrödinger's Cat: all express insanity in a tangible, temporarily-real way. Stein's As A Wife, Has A Cow, A Love Story is outright schizophrenic as it wagers a war with conventional, linear thought: "so prepare to prepare for in preparation is to prepare... nearly all of it to be, as to be, as a wife, has a cow--a love story." Dick's VALIS confronts the daunting mystery that haunted him in real life: Was our reality superimposed on a still existing Roman Empire? Did the black iron prison ever really fall? Is it the times (late 1960s-1970s) that make people mad, or madness infecting the times? The danger lies in not becoming too influenced by the complexity and totality of their craft, to not confuse one's mind for the worlds expressed within their words.

In this danger real, tangible value is found within the experience of walking the teeter-tot line of madness, of getting near an infection, right within the virus' domain--of falling victim to even believing all of this crap. The collective becomes the personal, and the real danger is that comprehension isn't going to be enough, that you're not going to be enough of a person for action, to compete with the virus. But, "if the reader is not a risk, he is not reading. And if the writer is not at risk, he is not writing." (Brodkey, 825) I've been down this road before, I always come home teetering and wet, broken but still with a gleam in my eye--for tomorrow, and the next book I'll read, the next book I'll write.

Brodkey, Harold: Reading, the Most Dangerous Game - The New York Times Book Review November 24, 1985.
Shugrue, Michael, Harry Finestone, Caroline Shordes: The Conscious Reader Eigth Edition. Allyn and Bacon, 2001

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