Amalie Smith: Læsningens Anatomi

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Læsningens Anatomi is a book whose back cover introduces itself as a series of notes about reading, jotted down by Amalie Smith throughout May 2012 and published on Forlaget emancipati(t/ss)ionsfrugten. Due to a concussion, Smith was not allowed to read for quite a while, but once she was able to read again she read about reading, and met with scientists, fellow writers, and friends so as to better understand what reading is.

Læsningens Anatomi is not only composed of Smith’s notes, but also of those who have thought, pictured, and written about reading before her. On each left page there is an image of text or an image related to text, and in one case, namely that of an excerpt of Henri Michaux’s Narration: an image of an image of text. “Narration” is pictured below the review.

In Læsningens Anatomi Smith approaches the act of reading from different but intertwined angles. There are implicit and explicit questions throughout the book: why is an alphabet necessary to writer letters? What goes on in the brain while reading? How ought we read, and how do we become engaged readers?

Like most of Smith’s works in print, Læsningens Anatomi takes its point of departure in Smiths’ daily life, but even moreso. We get the impression that she simply writes the notes and later decides to publish them. Thus, the text is somewhere between diary writings and scientific observations, and similar in genre to the well-known notebooks of Freud, Darwin or Da Vinci. Læsningens Anatomi is, nonetheless, fundamentally different from these notebooks in that it was written for publication. Notes are usually not written for the purpose of being published. In this particular sense, Læsningens Anatomi is more similar to the diaries of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard foresaw early on that he would be studied after his death and that his diaries would be published, so he began to edit previous entries and write his diaries with an intended reader in mind. So, if one were to raise an objection against Smith’s work it would be that, paradoxically, hers are not notes, as notes are by their very nature unedited. Notes typically contain spelling mistakes, digressions, and bad notation. Smith’s writings are simply too beautiful to be notes:

 

«Linje A til Farum fra Ryparken station, kan ikke se om P har lavet et linjespot fra Farum-sporet. En flok amerikansktalende forretningsfolk tager toget to stop, folder efter tur parablyer ud som faldskærme, idet de træder ud på perronnen.»

 

I find it difficult to believe these two sentences were jotted down as notes and not edited. Instead, I believe we should read them as literature with an intended reader in mind. On the back cover it says:

 

“LÆSNINGENS ANATOMI er mine læsenoter fra maj måned.”

 

But is Læsningens Anatomi really all the reading-related notes she took during the month of May? Is everything there? Did she take notes to the notes, did she omit notes from publication, did she re-write some notes? A positive answer to any of these questions, I think, would challenge the categorization of the text as ‘notes.’

When reading Læsningens Anatomi, I come to think of the important distinction to be drawn between events, literature, and other artifacts that thematize themselves as art, and those that do not. Marcel Duchamp’s premise that art ought to relate to itself as art has over the years become mainstream wisdom. As an example, I believe most would say that Lady Gaga is closer to satisfy our concept of art than Beyoncé, even though they both make pop music. And the main reason is – I suggest – that Lady Gaga is explicitly aware that her identity as we perceive it is entirely mediated by the media and that this mediation creates new possibilities of expression.

Drawing this crude distinction, Smith’s book is an artwork in that it thematize itself as a readable object by being about reading. However, the appearance of Smith makes us forget that we are reading literature and not the diary or private notebook of someone doing research on reading. We experience the exact opposite result when someone by the name of Paul Auster suddenly appears in a novel by Paul Auster. Auster’s presence in the novel stresses that we are in a made-up story. Smith’s presence suggests that we are reading her private notebook. The distinction between private notes and literature is most brilliantly in play when Smith’s friends occur in the text as P, R, A, and so forth. On one interpretation, her use of capital letters to refer to her friends is due to the fact that Smith prefers to protect her friends from the exposure that comes with appearing in a published work, which means that she is writing with an intended reader in mind. On another interpretation, it is due to the fact that she does not need to refer to her friends by name since she knows them. And on this interpretation, the reader is of no significance. I think the correct interpretation lies in between, Smith is aware that referring to her friends by single capital letters plays on the distinction between literature and notes and so uses it to stress the tension inherent in the work. And this further underlines that Læsningens Anatomi is not a printed notebook, since the tension derives from writing to an intended audience.

henri-michaux-narration-excerpt-1927

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