Monday, October 29, 2007

The partnership between writer and reader

Since at least library school (1983-84 -- yikes!), I have been thinking about this issue. When I write - letters, e-mails, blog entries, poems or scholarly articles, I try to be as clear as possible. But I have absolutely no control over how (or whether) YOU, dear reader, receive and interpret the writing.

The issue first came up for me in the context of arguing over librarians' commitment to avoid censorship. The more I learned about reading studies, the less viable seemed the wonderful, idealistic approach that truth will win in the market place of ideas. Reading studies consistently find that readers will choose to read materials that they agree with. If they are given material to read that challenges their beliefs, most readers will misinterpret the material, or at least fail to absorb the challenging comments. These reading studies were looking at such extreme cases as neo-Nazis being given material that criticizes and debunks the Protocols of Zion, or other such extreme biases. So, librarians optimistically stocking up on material on both sides of issues can't really expect the readers who have strong opinions on one side or the other to either choose or absorb opposing views. (To be fair, you may reach debate students or people sitting on a fence when you offer materials on both sides of controversial issues.)

This is a rather extreme situation, and most of what I write certainly does not fall that far to either side of an ideological divide. But the point is certainly worth considering -- I send out my words into the void of space and time. You, at the other end, decode and read what I write. But you bring to the reading your own life experience. How well you understand or remember what I write is partly a function of how well and clearly I write it. But part of that is outside my control. It's a partnership, between reader and writer. I record these words, with no guarantee that anybody will read them. Until your eyes and brain begin to partner with me and my words, nothing happens. No knowledge or opinion is passed along. But the magic of writing is that my words persist -- long after my spoken words, and potentially much farther away. It is as if we were trying to touch and communicate through a glass barrier -- some gets through, but some is filtered out.

And librarians work with that magic every day. Wow!

(image of Texas prisoner Kenneth Foster, Jr., at the time awaiting execution & now paroled into the general prison population, visited by his new wife, Tasha Narez-Foster, about Aug. 30, 2007 from ABC I chose the image -- gut-wrenching backstory -- because it was the best illustration I could find of the unbreachable barrier between people)

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