The Forest of Symbols

This is a post about the spiritual nature of reading. The title of the post points to the forest because that is where the author finds the purest, most serene spiritual experience. I am separating religion and and the spiritual here, while still recognizing that these experiences are one and the same for many people. For me, they are separate and distinct. For the context of this post, a spiritual experience is one where an individual communes, communicates, or otherwise 'feels' the presence of a spirit, the spirit world, or the presence of an overarching spiritual force in her environment.

I am here this week to argue that the act of reading itself stems from a spiritual place and, when we engage in it, takes us back to that place in a regular and predictable way.

Let's begin with how reading's beginnings as a spiritual experience. Throughout this post I will refer to quotes from a book titled 'A History of Reading' from Steven Roger Fischer. This book is a part of a trilogy that also include 'A History of Writing' and 'A History of Language' among its ranks. I've read the former and am just beginning to digest 'The History of Reading'. If the quality and illumination of 'Writing' is any guide, my experience with 'Reading' should be amazing. If you share my uber-nerd interest in these subjects, you really need to check out Fischer's work.

In the very beginning of 'A History of Reading', Fischer states that:

"Reading appears to be superficially and parasitically coupled to such primeval cognitive scanning processes as tracking, weaving, tool-making, berry gathering, face and gender recognition and many others, whereby a flood of visual data - shapes, units, patterns, orientation, sequencing - is assessed at a glance."

This is where I begin my argument. I have asserted that I find the forest to e a place of spirit, a place where I feel spiritual, and where I feel I am in the presence of spirits. Reading has its origins in the primeval ghost forest of our ancestors. The act of hunting game by tracking them through the landscape, by identifying and then gathering plants for sustenance and medicine (food and medicine are easily argued to be parts of the spiritual experience for many as well) in the savanna and in the woods, we were conditioning ourselves for the act of reading. In this way I connect that time, a time before materialism, colonialism, and other ill-winds, with the origins of reading.

When we read we are scanning the landscape for the presence of game, for the ominous and foreboding trollsign or giant print warning us of spirits that would do us harm.

When we read we are accessing that part of our brain that allows for our greatest talent as a species, pattern recognition, to flourish in the green mists of the moist fungoid underbelly of the ghost forests walked by our ancestors.

When you think of a spiritual experience, what comes to mind? You might have had one, you might have them all the time, or you might think you've never had a spiritual experience; nonetheless you must have an idea about what it feels like, right? Let's look at the next quote from Fischer and see if we can find a clue:

"The... theory, endorsed by those who hold reading to be a visual semantic process, maintains that the graphemes or graphic form - whether logograms (word sign), syllabogram (syllabic sign) or a combination of letters (signs in an alphabetic system) - yields meaning without necessary recourse to language. Whole words and phrases, even short sentences, can be read 'at one go, the proponents of this theory maintain; one doesn't have to deconstruct them into individually sounded-out letters."

Right there, that bit in the middle when he says 'meaning without necessary recourse to language'. For an experience to be spiritual, it has to mean something, it has to mean something without us being told what it means. A similar feeling without meaning is called a paranormal experience, or a David Lynch film. What Fischer is really getting at here is that to read is to take in the meaning of the whole or part of the page (or screen, I guess) at once and download its meaning on-the-whole.

Reading is an intimate attachment, a silver cord stretching all of the way back to the beginnings of recorded time.

Fischer points this out to us when he states that:

"Both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens sapiens read notches on bones signaling something that was meaningful to them - perhaps a tally of game, days, or lunar cycles. Cave art was 'read', too, as graphic stories bearing meaningful information...Signalling allowed symbolic messages to be read over a distance: flags, smoke, fired powders, reflections from polished metals..."

The derivation of meaning from changes in our world, in the case of our early ancestors this was both practical and prophetic, just like reading is for us in this modern world. We read for information and for inspiration.

Let's fast forward a bit, pull ourselves forward from the time when everything in the natural world left us in a state of fear and awe to the dawn of recorded civilization, the Sumerians (queue Ghostbuster's theme).

If you'll forgive one last quote from "A History of Reading", it will help bring us into coherence in our new place on the time stream:

"A paradigm shift occurred when Sumerian scribes began using... coordinated sounds and symbols (including pictorials) to create 'signs' of a writing system. A design... stood for a specific sound value... Reading in its true form emerged when one started to interpret a sign for its sound value alone within a standardized system of limited signs. Whole texts, and not just isolated words, could now be conveyed, meaning that reading was no longer a one-to-one transfer (object to word), but a logical sequencing of sounds to recreate a natural human language."

With the Sumerian's innovations in written language,the skills that we learned in the pre-historical ghost forest helped to adapt and free up our minds from having to remember what the signs in the sky and in the landscape meant (we now have Zuul's Inaugural Farmer's Almanac for that) to a place where we could develop and muse and digest our life's experiences.

Reading, in its primitive form, allowed us to read a forest of symbols. That skill, in turn, evolved with symbols to enable us to have more time and energy to deepening our spiritual experiences through our thoughts, dreams, and interaction with the world.