Fear of the Unseen

When I read this article on not picking books by the author’s sex or race, I agreed with the spirit: knowing the author’s gender, sexuality, or even hat size shouldn’t change your enjoyment. However, something niggled at me about it and today I realised what: knowing more than the text often does change enjoyment without any issues of sexism &c.

My enjoyment of Shakespeare’s Macbeth increased after I learnt more about the political climate of the day: suddenly, in addition to the story itself, I could appreciate moment when Shakespeare tried to praise the king by making his ancestors seem more noble. Reading Shakespeare without that understanding of who he was and when he lived would have denied me that additional layer. And the same can be said for other set books.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

No Man Is an Island, John Donne

Leaving aside the issue of context adding to a work, some works need the reader to know more in advance. There are many translations of Beowulf: some aim at accurate translation, some at capturing the essence of the verse, and some at telling the story. Without knowing in advance what the translator’s aim was, a reader new to Beowulf could easily have no idea what mindset to adopt. While this is (deliberately) an extreme example, the same applies to any translation: without knowing more than just the text, a reader will not know what the translator valued most when picking words and phrases.

So, for any book not written by an author who speaks a similar dialect to the reader, lack of context can impact enjoyment. Exactly the opposite of the avoiding negative bias that blind reading aims to achieve.

So, would I be brave enough to blindly accept, and read, a book sent to me? Yes. Because I read widely and voraciously, so have a broad basis for comprehension. But would I expect an average reader to do it? Probably not. Most people don’t have the time to reset their perceptions, so would be better served (both for enjoyment and empathy) by books that have links to their current frame of reference.

2 thoughts on “Fear of the Unseen

  1. I fully agree, I do think context adds to the experience. I get how anonymity might aid the reader in a different way but on the whole unless you’re so obstinately opinionated (which I’d like to think most readers aren’t) that a particular piece of information will limit the entire work for you, context is better

    Liked by 1 person

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