Personal anthology: Scenes of reading, 1: A.S. Byatt, Possession

It's hard to write a good fictional scene involving characters reading. As A.S. Byatt authorially interjects in the passage I'm about to quote from her novel Possession: A Romance, one risks pulling the reader into a "mise-en-abîme … where words draw attention to the power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum." And yet the scene that comes after that disclaimer is one of my very favorite moments in the novel, one of those passages that makes you (or me, at least) draw in a breath and point and say "Yes. Yes. That, exactly." Byatt's main character, Roland Michell, is rereading a poem by the (fictitious) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, a poem he knows inside and out:

There are readings — of the same text — that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are — believe it — impersonal readings — where the mind's eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind's ear hears them sing.

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark — readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. …

Roland read, or reread, The Golden Apples, as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire. He saw the tree, the fruit, the fountain, the woman, the grass, the serpent, single and multifarious in form. He heard Ash's voice, certainly his voice, his own unmistakable voice, and he heard the language moving around, weaving its own patterns, beyond the reach of any single human, writer or reader.

— A.S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance, chapter 26

Most of my readings aren't of the hair-standing-up variety, and yet: that line about knowing that we understand something we're reading before we even can say "what we know, or how" — that's something I've felt any number of times, but have never quite been able to articulate as well as this scene does.

I've been thinking about scenes of reading quite a bit lately. I may quote a few more here before I'm done.

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