Imaginative play: Doing fieldwork in and around literary texts

By Charlotte Christiansen

Please pale hot, please cover rose, please acre in the red stranger, please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.

Blegt varmt tak, dæk rose tak, mark den røde fremmede inde tak, smør hele bøffen med regulære føleansigter tak.

  • Gertrude Stein: Ømme Dupper [Tender Buttons] Translated by Peter Laugesen, Borgen 2004

In my fieldwork, we have visited Gertrude Stein’s literary cubist kitchen. We have shared the life of a court lady in late 900s Japan. We were involved in a young woman’s plans for emigration from Ireland to Buenos Aires. We sat with a high-class couple trying to, but not really, declaring their fondness of each other at a summer party in the English country side. 

Of course, I have not really been there. I have investigated these imaginary worlds conjured up by Gertrude Stein, Sei Shonagon, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf respectively, with my fellow readers in shared readinggroups in Denmark. 

The shared reading groups I participate in are for people between 18 and 35, and run by an association called Læseforeningen, whose goal is to make nothing less than a reading revolution in Denmark.  The reading revolution is to happen through weekly meetings in our small groups. Here, a guide reads literature aloud from photo copies and we discuss the texts on the way and immediately afterwards. We talk about personal experiences that the stories remind us of. We present critiques our current society. We drink lots of tea and eat a lot of snacks. I read a lot of authors that I had never heard about. This is much fun. I realize that other people’s associations and inner images are often completely different from my own. As one of my fellow readers said about a text:

“It was also quite exciting because there were so many different interpretations of the text in the reading group. I think it depended a lot on your values, because there were themes of both family, money, work and love. It was exciting to see how it’s different things that move you and this determines how sinister, positive or negative you perceive [the text]”.

This is much fun but I am also grappling with many questions; what does it mean to share reading? How do you know if the atmosphere or emotions the text provoked in you are actually shared by the others? What kind of ontological status could you grant the literary characters and authors of the texts, who come to life as a presence in the space and time of the reading group? 

Another larger question I grapple with, is why and how we should study literature reading anthro­pologically. Why go back to the old, tried and somewhat forgotten and replaced technology of reading? Of course, a main reason is that people still read literature. It is lamented from time to time that we read increasingly less. But people in Denmark actually still read a lot of books and the Danish book market is still alive. I also see a tendency for readers to increasingly connect their solitary reading with social meetings around literature such as festivals, author talks or book clubs. I find it fascinating that my interlocutors meet and sit in a circle together every week, to read aloud, in an era where there is competition from podcasts, audiobooks, social media and endless Netflix series to binge.

Though most people read, and many people read literature, it is my impression that literature reading is still an understudied subject in anthropology. This sometimes makes it hard for me to distinguish how an anthropological approach differs from a didactic or literary theoretical approach. These are disciplines that have studied the subject in detail for decades.

In the beginning of my PhD project, I thought we had found a field where we could investigate ‘pure reading experiences’. As we read texts prima vista and talk about the texts, I would be able to hear and register readers’ reactions immediately. But I am starting to see how my field is a particular, yet very interesting, reading culture in Denmark, with particular ideas and values regarding what literature is, what literary quality is, proper ways of rea­ding, and the amount of agency that can be granted to texts (and people). 

This has made me aware that conversely, to read can be many things, and that this might be the freedom you have as an anthropologist; to say that reading is as many things as people do and say it is.

To read can be to lie on the beach, asleep, with a book over your head for shadow. It can be to sit and scroll through Instagram in your kitchen, while listening to the radio and eating a water melon. It can happen at the library, studying a photo copy closely and taking notes in the margin. Or sitting in your good friend’s sofa and discussing a classic novel free from memory in your monthly book club. All of these activities might be called ’reading’: a (social) practice around texts.

My fieldwork is very much about making the familiar strange: Coming to see a practice that we all do every day, and you do right now as you read this blog post, from the outside.  Luckily, the weird words and sentences we read in poems and short stories, like the Gertrude Stein poem in the beginning of this blog post, are really good at provoking the necessary Verfremdung-effects.

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