I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently titled ‘Do we mistake inaccessibility for brilliance?’ An interesting question in and of it self, but what made the article really interesting to me was the use of the term absorption in it. Lesli Jamison tells of her love/hate relationship with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (in her words: shorthand for ‘Hard book that people have strong feelings about’). This next passage is what caught my attention:
I assigned myself 50 pages a day. These were commitment devices that would have once filled me with shame. If I was reading 50 pages a day because I’d decided to, that meant I was failing to have the kind of unforced experience I’d come to fetishize as “authentic” absorption: as if the book would exert a kind of gravitational force to which I’d be utterly enthralled. But in reading those 50 pages a day, I found that any binary I might draw between absorption and intentionality was far more porous than I’d imagined: I moved constantly between rapture and effort; often these modes were entangled and simultaneous. (…) I was invited into a different understanding of what authentic literary absorption might look like: neither struggle nor bliss but a strange weave of the two; not completely “losing myself” in a book but feeling myself more deeply in the act of reckoning with it — becoming aware of my own attention, becoming an agent in its application.
Jamison draws a distinction between unforced ‘authentic’ absorption on the one hand and intentional effort on the other. This is usually how absorption is discussed in the research literature as well: absorption is characterised as a seemingly effortless experience that happens when the match between book and reader is ‘just right’. Absorbing books seem to have a certain power over their readers: they can draw them into a story world unawares and make them forget about the fact that they are reading. I personally think that such a description paints a perfect picture of my ideal sunday afternoon, however within the field of media psychology and persuasion research the term absorption has almost become synonymous with ‘passive uncritical entertainment’. As a consequence of this kind of description the concept of absorption has been shown in a predominantly negative light. In my dissertation I argued that we need to expand absorption research by discussing possible positive experiences and outcomes of absorption (apart from mere passive entertainment), to alleviate the mostly negative connotations that persuasion research carries.
Jamison’s article gave a perfect example of what I mean when I say we need (to get back to) a more positive outlook on absorption. In the quote above, I feel she also makes a plea for a different kind of understanding of absorption. A literary absorption – a term unheard of within literary studies or media psychology, because it seems a contradictio in terms – that is characterised not only by the feeling of ‘getting lost in the book’, but also by a conscious effort and reflection during reading. In my dissertation I quoted the nineteenth century art critic Bell:
“There is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art, that transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories arrested; we are lifted above the strem of life” (Bell, 1982)
This is what the romanticists thought off when then were talking about absorption. I liked the quote because it uses language that is more commonly used by media psychologists to describe absorption with popular narrative media (transports). Also, it relieves absorption from its negative connotations by using terms such as ‘lifting above’ and ‘exaltating’, instead of ‘being forced’ (Brecht, 1964). Jamison’s account shows a modern personal account of an absorption experience with a book that many would at first ‘sight’ not classify as ‘a passive read’. And that makes me happy.