Elaine Auyoung responds to Nate Crocker

Nate draws a vivid distinction between the figurative world of a book and the physical world in which we read books. While Victorian thinkers found it productive to use reading as a metaphor for perception, we also need to understand the many ways in which these processes are distinct. Compare, for instance, the ease and immediacy with which we perceive our physical surroundings to the effort involved in first “getting into” a novel or scholarly monograph. As skilled readers, we’ve learned to recognize words on a page in an automatic way, but it takes work to construct from those words a mental representation of what a new book is about.

Moreover, even when a text enables us to construct strikingly vivid mental representations, there’s a difference between the quality of those representations and the sensory plenitude of our firsthand perceptual experience. When Nate describes himself holding a copy of Reading with the Senses, my mental representation of this verbal account is mediated and indeterminate in a way that the experience of holding my own copy of the book is not. The mediatedness of literary representation has real aesthetic significance.

Finally, we need to think more about the different forms of knowledge that one may or may not be able to acquire from the “world” of a given text, ranging from the strict epistemological category of justified true belief to intimate knowledge of specific fictional characters, to simply feeling like we recognize or comprehend the particular sensation a writer seeks to describe.

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