04 July 2007

If I had read what you had read

Julie at Bookworm posted this interesting question recently:

Imagine meeting someone who has read the exact same books you have. No more, no less. What would that be like?

The responses on her blog ranged from "how boring" to "fascinating". My opinion falls closer to the "fascinating" end of the continuum. First, I would find it curious if someone had the same reading history as me. I'm not sure which would be more intriguing: to find out why they had read the same things, to discover whether they had read them at similar times during his/her life, or to persist in determining if such a bizarre coincidence were in fact true.

Certainly, having degrees in English means that there is a certain population that is likely to have read the same texts as me. As a former high school English teacher, there is a larger population -- both teachers and students -- that would have similar reading lists. I could list other groups with whom I would have some reading commonality: the members of two different book groups; bloggers who have recommended books to me and whose recommendations have led me to books I might not have otherwise considered; friends who have given me books; colleagues who share similar professional interests; contemporaries who read the same popular books at various points in my life -- every girl in 5th grade read the Little House books, in 7th grade it was Flowers in the Attic, in high school it was Centennial, college Atlas Shrugged, The World According to Garp and The Thorn Birds, an eclectic list that only shares the common denominator of popularity at certain points in time.

But, just as likely, there are books that others may have read that I haven't ever considered reading, or that I read at different times. Watership Down, for instance, was extremely popular when I was in Jr. High. I didn't read it until I was in my late 20's, as part of an assigned reading for an Adolescent Literature course. Cognitively, there would have been differences between my reading the book at 13 and reading it at 27, but, more importantly, as my reading of the book was for a purpose other than just enjoyment, I would have approached the text differently. I may be one of the few readers of mass market books on the planet who has not read The DaVinci Code. For good or bad, that book has insinuated itself into popular culture and I could no longer have an uninfluenced reading of that book. My reading of it would be influenced by what comments I've heard or read about it (ranging from a co-worker recommending it, to a family member describing it as "a good airport read when it's the only thing in English available", to an acquaintance stating that I had taken a political stance by not reading it), by the media hype surrounding the book and the subsequent movie, by the plagiarism trial, and various parodies of the book that I've seen. Without that, though, my experiences still would have influenced my reading of the book. Putting critical evaluation of the book's merit aside and looking at the book only as a story read for entertainment, and assuming that I had never heard of the book, reading it the first week it was published, I still would have been influenced by my prior knowledge of church history and theology; my Catholic childhood, and my exposure to Renaissance art.

If I were at a cocktail party and met someone who read exactly the same texts as me while an undergrad, would our reactions to the book be the same? Our perspectives would be influenced by the philosophy of the schools attended and individual teachers, and methods of criticism. Our interests in the texts and the time period in which they were written would be different as well. Someone interested in dramaturgy would read Shakespeare's plays differently than someone who approached them with an interest chiefly in Elizabethan language. Someone who loved teaching Freshman English might not understand why I found discussing the same short stories incredibly boring, and might not understand my frustration that only a few Seniors I taught ever wanted to understand Emerson. Someone who read Aristotle, or Moliere, or Camus at age 20 in the late 70's (like me) would have brought an entirely different perspective to a work than someone who read the same works at age 20 today.

Would it be fascinating to meet someone who had read the exact same books as I had? Of course. But our experiences could never be the same, as we would bring different backgrounds to that eclectic list. The fascination would rest mainly with how different our experiences with those books would be.


Dorothy W. said...

Interesting question! I agree with you that the experiences wouldn't be the same -- that makes perfect sense, and it would be a fascinating study to see how the experiences differed.

chris miller said...

I wouldn't believe them.

I mean -- even if they demonstrated that they actually had read all the books that I had read (not an impossibility - since compared to yours, mine is not a long list) -- I would never believe that they hadn't read many, many others as well.

So if someone made that claim, I would assume that he or she was trying to initiate some kind of strange - hopefully playful - relationship with me - with which I might just play along - depending on how interesting I found them and their comments regarding the books we had both read.

Cam said...

Dorothy -- the different perspective would be interesting. Sort of a literary twist on nature v nurture. We are so much defined by our experiences.

Chris -- Always the skeptic, I probably wouldn't believe them either. I've probably forgotten far more books than I remember, so why wouldn't I think the other personal had not done so as well. Still, it would be interesting --and fun -- trying to find the one book NOT in common. I suppose viewing works of art is the same -- no two people would look at a painting in quite the same manner and finding out those differences in perception of a work could be fascinating.

Emily Barton said...

You're so, so right. But think of all the extremely interesting conversations you'd get to have forever with the person who'd read things at different times. And I wonder if they'd be as embarrassed as I am to have to admit to having read/not read certain things.

(un)relaxeddad said...

Theoretically, one could assert that it's simply impossible for someone to read the same books as you because they would literally be reading different texts, given that a book, once read, becomes something different - just as you say about the DaVinci code.