Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 8.djvu/224

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212
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

READING AS AN INTELLECTUAL PROCESS.
By E. O. VAILE.

LANGUAGE possesses a double imperfection. It is incomplete as an expression, as a product, as a symbol; it is imperfect, also, as a cause, as an excitant. It is inadequate both to perfect expression and to perfect impression. It fails to receive fully all that the mind would put upon it, neither does it faithfully deliver all which it fairly received. The soul, struggle as it will, cannot embody itself in form. Expression cannot equal conception. Language suffers this imperfection in common with every plastic art. To the great master how feeble must have seemed his glorious "Ninth Symphony" as an expression of that heavenly harmony which must have filled his soul! What forms and colors, beyond the powers of matter to present, must have possessed the spirit which produced "The Last Judgment!" So with the great masters of literature. To how little of what they must have felt and thought have they been able to give a "local habitation and a name!" And then, even at our best, what a feeble hold do we lay upon what they have bequeathed!

Now, this full interpretation and appreciation of an author, the perfect work of the apparatus which should take the impression, constitute reading of the highest order. In such reading perception becomes intuition, divination. It is not baffled the inherent weakness of language, but feels that "more is meant than meets the ear."

Of course, reading of this kind assumes, to a large extent, equality of mental stature in author and reader. Indeed, it is quite true that, from a book, as from any work of art, we receive that only which is a reflex of ourselves, the counterpart of what we are. Words and sentences do not receive their interpretation from the writer alone. The reader himself becomes an unconscious author, loading the vehicle according to his own calibre and character. It is even a question to what extent great authors "have built better than they knew," so ingenious and profound have been their commentators. Lowell says; "Goethe wrote his 'Faust' in its earliest form without a thought of the deeper meaning which the exposition of an age of criticism was to find in it; without foremeaning it he had impersonated in Mephistopheles the genius of his century." Some one has said: "No man is the wiser for his books until he is above them." Milton expresses the same in "Paradise Regained," b. iv., line 322:

 ". . . Who reads

Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings what need he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,