Three Dimensions of Intimacy in Literary Reading

Three Dimensions of Intimacy in Literary Reading

Kalle Puolakka


While numerous literary researchers, readers, authors, and philosophers have tried to articulate the peculiar feeling of intimacy they have sensed in literary reading, new angles can still be brought to bear on this issue. This paper develops an account of the intimacy of literary reading based on three concepts: silent performance, routine, and trust. By combining an interpretation of the history of silent reading with an understanding of literary reading as a particular kind of performance, I show, in the first part, how a focus on some internal qualities of reading helps to understand its intimate nature. Then, the picture of the intimacy of literary reading emerging from this account is complemented with a look at the role of routines in our reading lives and the sense of trust readers sometimes feel toward authors. All these aspects of literary reading contribute, in different ways, to the sense of intimacy literary reading can involve. The paper ends with a few observations on the state of this intimate, experiential sphere in an increasingly digitalized world.

Key Words
digitalization; experience; intimacy; literary reading; performance; routine; trust


1. Introduction

Literary reading is generally thought of as a highly intimate endeavor. The fact that authors to avid readers of literature have gone to great lengths to capture in words the intimacy they have sensed in literary reading serves as a kind of testament of its unusual quality and power that, as I shall argue, may well be unique among forms of art engagement.[1] While aspects of this intimacy can be found across the arts, I believe that the three dimensions of intimacy identified below come together in an exceptionally powerful and cumulative sense in literary reading.[2]

The intimacy of literary reading has already stimulated many philosophical and aesthetic analyses. One such is provided by the phenomenologist Georges Poulet. According to him, the fact that we can “live” with the imaginative and mental objects that emerge in our minds during literary reading in a much more immediate sense than with the physical objects surrounding us gives literary reading a particular air of “intimacy.”[3] While the existence of these objects is dependent on the reader’s mental activity, in Poulet’s view not all the images, thoughts, and other mental states raised in the engaged literary reader during reading are straightforwardly the reader’s. Rather, in literary reading, a peculiar connection unfolds between the reader and something external to the reader that also complicates and intensifies the intimacy Poulet attributes to this activity. Poulet writes, “[w]hen I am absorbed in reading, a second self takes over, which feels and thinks for me”; when reading, “I am on loan to another.”[4] Rather than as the author, Poulet describes this elusive second self the reader is embraced by as “a certain power of organizing” he thinks is distinguishable in the literary work. Given that reading essentially involves being on loan to another, literary reading is not a completely subjective moment, but, on Poulet’s account, it nevertheless is underlain by a sense of intimacy, the precise character of which it is difficult to fully capture conceptually.[5]

More recently, John Holliday has also analyzed a type of intimacy that he finds an important element of literary reading, but he lays much more stress than Poulet on the reader’s connection to the actual author in explaining this experiential sense. The central notion of Holliday’s account is “authorial connectedness,” which is founded on the reader’s having a sense of sharing some key thoughts and attitudes with the author, as well as a general resonance with the author’s personality and style.[6] The strongest form of authorial connectedness, however, still requires a further element, something Holliday calls an experience of “expressive potency,” in which the reader is overcome by a feeling that the author is utilizing the kinds of expressive and literary means  that the reader would, had she or he the required expressive and literary talent.[7] Holliday also gives a detailed argument of why he thinks “the emotional intimacy” at the heart of authorial connectedness should, indeed, be thought of as having the actual author as its object and not the so-called implied author that some have seen as the more appropriate literary category. In other words, the intimacy raised by a literary work is not a kind of epiphenomenon of literary engagement, but it can be based on an attachment to a real flesh-and-blood individual.[8]

In this paper, I will join authors like Poulet and Holliday by providing my own explanation of the intimate character of literary reading. Like Holliday, I believe part of the explanation lies in the reader having a sense of connection to the author, although I will analyze this connection slightly differently than him. Equally important to my account is to offer a particular view of the very act of reading. Rather than analyzing the ways in which literary reading can involve an encounter with an elusive other, as in Poulet’s case, my focus will be on some internal qualities of literary reading.

This part of the paper also looks at the history of reading, which I believe provides some significant insights into how we should address literary reading now. Particularly for inhabitants of twenty-first-century post-industrialized societies, it is very natural to think of reading as a silent, solitary undertaking. However, as the history of reading reveals, this manner of reading is in no way an activity natural to humans like eating and sleeping, but is the result of a specific kind of historical development. I begin the paper by going through this history and why I think it provides an interesting take on how we should understand the intimacy of literary reading. I then expand on this account by analyzing the role of routines in reading and the sense of trust readers can feel toward authors in building the intimate experiential sphere that I believe literary reading is. At the same time, I also suggest some ways in which this intimacy might be unique to literature among forms of art engagement. I close with a few reflections on the state of this experiential sphere in our increasingly digitalized contemporary world.

2. Toward a silent performance

As natural as it is nowadays to think of reading as a silent, solitary act, this has not always been the case. Irene Vallejo, the author of the international bestseller Papyrus, has a message to the contemporary silent reader: “You are a very specific kind of reader, and you stem from a family of reformers. Th[e] silent, free and secret dialogue between [the author and reader] is a remarkable invention.”[9] The development leading to the birth of the revolutionary silent reader reveals surprising historical connections in the seemingly mundane act of silent reading, which also sheds light on the intimacy it can be characterized by.

The invention of the modern alphabet in ancient Greece around 700 BCE, which formed the basis for later Latin and Cyrillic alphabetic systems, is one of the most significant events in the history of reading.[10] Even though the introduction of the Greek alphabet meant an important transition from an oral to a textual culture in this part of the world, the earliest texts made with this new system were not intended to be read silently but out loud. As literacy was still not widespread, public readings of texts were also popular.[11] Some common beliefs of this time also reinforced the idea of reading as something essentially done aloud. For example, the written letter was considered dead without the enlivening voice of the reader, and reading out loud was commonly described with metaphors related to flying.[12] Particularly in ancient Rome, it was also typical for the upper class to have their slaves read to them. Cicero, for example, is known to have had several slaves for this purpose. In reading, the author of the text was considered to take possession of the reader and thereby compromise their autonomy, which made reading out loud a particularly suitable task for the already unfree slave.[13]

In this period, there were also practical reasons for reading out loud. The earliest texts had no spaces between words and sentences and no punctuation marks to help the reader decipher the basic semantic content of texts. Reading out loud significantly helped the reader to identify the words and sentences in the texts composed in this type of writing, usually called scriptura continua. All this had the result that silent reading was a highly alien concept in the ancient world.[14] Even the most significant library of this time, Alexandria, was very likely filled by a constant small muttering and rhythmic leg beats, accompanying library users’ textual sense-making efforts.[15]

One factor that also shows the rarity of silent reading still in the first centuries CE is that encountering such reading during this period could cause strong bafflement. This happened to Saint Augustine upon coming to meet Ambrose, the bishop of Milan around 380 CE. Augustine describes this extraordinary encounter:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.[16]

Had silent reading been a common phenomenon in Augustine’s time, he hardly would have been moved to include a description of Ambrose’s strange activity in his published work, Confessions, and to observe the solemn quality he sensed in it. Other similar kinds of descriptions of silent reading can be found from this period, and in many of them the sense of concentration and focus perceived in silent reading is contrasted to the more outwardly expressive reading aloud.[17]

There are a few historical points still before digging more deeply into the intimacy that I believe literary reading involves. Silent reading started to spread in Europe from the ninth century onwards. Punctuation developed, and spaces were placed in between words and sentences. Signs also appeared in book copyists’ workshops urging them to work in silence.[18] The growth of silent reading, however, did not automatically mean the growth of private reading, as books were still expensive and rare. Books also were not easily portable, due to their size and weight. Against this background, it is understandable why Gutenberg’s inventions in printing techniques in the middle of the fifteenth century are usually considered such important watersheds in the history of reading. But, likewise important was the introduction of the smaller-sized octavo-book by Aldus Manutius in 1501, which is seen as an especially important step in the development of private reading. With this new book form, not only did books turn into more personal items but the time and place of reading were no longer as limited by external conditions, as they were when books were still rare and hard to carry along with oneself.[19]

The emergence of the modern novel, with the publication of books like Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605–1615) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the popularity this literary genre received in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has often been regarded as the final clinch in the development of silent reading in Europe. The philosopher Peter Kivy, in fact, has called the novel “the quintessentially ‘private’ work of art, to be experienced alone by the silent reader.”[20] Furthermore, he argues that our contemporary understanding of silent literary reading should take the full history of reading into account. In Kivy’s view, it is easy to understand the earliest forms of reading — public readings and reading aloud — as performances, as they involved oral recitation and addressing an audience. Kivy’s ultimate point is that the now common silent reading should also be thought of as a performance. It is, of course, a rather strange performance, given that it is silent and has no other audience but the reader themselves. However, Kivy thinks that a silent performance without an external audience is not as contradictory an idea as might initially seem, as is shown, for example, by the musician silently “performing” a composition in their mind’s ear while reading a score, or the pianist playing through a sonata with thought in an empty concert hall.[21]

An important background motivation for Kivy’s take on literary reading is to uncover features that he thinks tend to get buried under the apparent ease with which we are able to read. An even closer look than Kivy’s at the act of literary reading further illustrates its performative character. When this understanding of literary reading is set against the background of the historical account presented above, the full potential intimacy of this silent performance is revealed — a theme of which Kivy somewhat strangely does not have much to say.

Kivy’s idea of silent literary reading as a performance, I think, can be reframed as the reader’s search for a good inner reading sound or tone for the literary work being read. Sometimes this can require some effort, with the reader trying different inner tones, phrasings, intonations, shades of stress, and paces of reading for engaging with the literary work at hand. Finding a proper inner reading voice can involve rereading some passages or even starting the novel all over again with a better suitable inner voice. All in all, the goal is to find the most seemingly appropriate inner tone and rhythm for the literary work being read. For example, authors with different rhythmic styles also pose different challenges for this activity. When engaged in this sort of silent activity, the reader arguably comes close to the musician who silently tries out in their inner ear different ways of performing a particular passage of the musical work being rehearsed.

It is very natural to think of literary reading as a form of inner speech. Referring to Plato’s much disliked orator, Kivy, for example, finds the reader “a silent Ion… enacting… the part of the storyteller.”[22] However, things are a bit more complex, because there seems to be a distinction in literary reading between imagining a voice and imagining in a voice. Literary reading can involve both forms of auditory imagination. For not only can readers imagine a silent voice for different literary characters but literary works also include passages, such as indirect discourse, in which the reader is better said to imagine by using their own inner voice. Regardless of how the role of the reader’s inner voice is understood, that is, as making a literary figure’s voice silently available to the reader or as a kind of intimate self-presence of the reader to oneself, the significance of the inner voice for literary reading further emphasizes its performative character.[23]

These reflections on the performative character of silent literary reading also show ways of unpacking the intimate character that many have sensed in literary reading. What I find especially relevant is that, unlike in the library of Alexandria, all the above performative factors take place in silence and without anyone knowing apart from the reader. In this respect, literary reading in our contemporary sense is a highly private moment that is understandably cherished by many. In short, it is a silent performance to ourselves.

Being private performances to ourselves, solitary oral recitations of literary texts, too, could be argued to involve an important sense of intimacy, simultaneously undermining the idea of silence as a key component of the intimacy involved in literary reading. Without belittling the value of such moments, silence is a crucial if not a necessary condition of the intimacy in literary reading that I seek to identify in this paper. The crucial factor to note is that finding a good silent inner voice is a different process than finding a good oral voice for reciting a literary text. This difference is also relevant to the question of intimacy. The former process is more searching and private in character compared to finding a proper voice for reciting a text out loud, even when that takes place alone. A closer look reveals that our silent inner voice is curiously malleable, capable of very sudden shifts of nuance and tone, and hence is something more seemingly personal than our outward voice. All in all, our relationship to our inner voice, especially in literary reading, seems reflective and concentrated to a more intensive degree than our relationship to our oral voice in the recitation of literary texts. It is also noteworthy that finding a good oral voice often involves silent moments during which the reciter tries out the recited text in their inner ear before continuing the recitation, so it is arguable that part of the possible intimacy involved in the solitary oral recitation of a text rests on the intimacy characterizing silent reading.

Taking into account the historical background of reading reveals the full potential intimacy of the silent reading moment, for it shows that it is not just one of life’s contingencies but is in fact a cultural invention, with a deep historical background. Vallejo writes: “We contemporary readers can feel ourselves lonely in the midst of all this haste in carrying out our slow ritual, but we have a long family line behind us…”[24] Realizing this family line that reaches all the way back to bishop Ambrose, I believe gives a still further kind of air of intimacy, a kind of icing on the cake, to the already intimate moment of silent literary reading, for it shows the historical depth of the practice and that we contemporary readers are part of a whole chain of readers. As in the case of other cultural practices with a deep historical background, we can start feeling a connection to its previous practitioners — in this case silent readers — a sense of continuing a tradition that people of earlier ages already considered significant. Taking this type of mindset toward one’s silent reading moment, I believe, can enhance its intimate character.

3. The familiar silent routine

For some, the silent performance of literary reading turns into a routine. Somewhat strangely, the English language seems to lack a proper word for such a reader, but in my native language of Finnish, there is a specific expression, “kirjallisuuden harrastaja,” for referring to someone who has literary reading as a hobby; “avid reader” might be the best English equivalent.[25] However, there is more to avid reading than just reading daily, for approaching literary reading as a hobby or as a routine reveals experiential levels in this activity that are also relevant when thinking about its intimate character.

At this point, we approach an experience that has been much discussed in everyday aesthetics, something that has been termed “everydayness.” Many scholars in this field emphasize that the everyday is not constituted by some set of specific events and objects, but by a particular attitude of everydayness that we gradually develop toward the environments, people, and objects that we encounter on a regular basis. Routines are central to this aspect of our lives. Our everyday can be seen as a patchwork of routines that enables us to go about our everyday dealings without much reflective effort; think, for example, of your daily visit to your local grocery store. Constructing routines is a way of placing ourselves into the world; they help us make an initially unfamiliar place our own. Everyday routines are also reliable precisely in the sense that they make effortless acting possible. At its best, this sense of reliability underlying the everyday can give our everyday a positive feel of familiarity, closeness, safety, or even intimacy.[26] Arto Haapala sums up this position on everydayness as follows:

Ordinary everyday objects lack [a] surprise element…, [but they] nevertheless… give us pleasure through a kind of comforting stability; through the feeling of being at home and taking pleasure in carrying out normal routines in a setting that is ‘safe’.[27]

Literary reading is, of course, in many ways a very different kind of routine from such everyday routines as shopping and commuting to work. It often includes the surprise element that Haapala thinks our everyday objects generally lack, such as encountering strange fictive characters and unforeseen plot twists. But even complex routines, such as literary reading, can be accompanied by a sense of everydayness. Helpful in this respect is Francisca Pérez Carreño’s recent analysis of everydayness as a particular kind of “lack” of “to-be-seenness.”[28] Rather than as an unreflective way of relating to objects and environments, which is key to Haapala’s understanding of everydayness, in Pérez Carreño’s view everydayness has more to do with the ways in which we assume we are attended to by others when we are engaged in various activities. Referring to Michael Fried’s analysis of absorption in painting, Pérez Carreño claims that there lies an “anti-theatricality” at the heart of everydayness, which she understands as an immersion in an activity in which we lose the sense of being an object of someone’s potential look or attention. This sense can also be metaphorical or indirect, as when we ponder, while being alone, what someone might think of us — which I, for example, regularly do. In moments of everydayness we, in contrast, “seem to abandon the consciousness of being seen and the necessity of offering an image of ourselves.”[29]

This extension to previous understandings of everydayness also nicely enables the incorporation of the routine of literary reading into everyday aesthetics. In the daily silent reading moment, the avid reader does not immerse themselves just in a fictional world but also in an everyday routine, the carrying out of which can lead to the emergence of a sense of not-to-be-seenness in the reader, in Pérez Carreño’s sense. That is, even if literary reading is a highly non-routine kind of activity in one respect, at least compared to, say, daily grocery shopping, it too can be accompanied by a sense of everydayness. There is also no reason why our experience could not have two simultaneous levels, in the sense that behind all the cognitive effort required by silent literary reading, the reader can nevertheless have a sense of familiarity and intimacy of being immersed in an important place-making routine. In other words, it is possible for us to experience two things at once, in this case imaginative reading and everydayness.[30]

In an even more concrete sense, place is a significant factor of literary reading, as a look at the history of reading again reveals. When books were still expensive and rare, the time and place of reading were not entirely in the hands of even literate people. Having literary reading as a hobby in our contemporary sense was possible only for a handful of people. The conditions of reading get still more concrete. As surprising as it might sound, even the development of beds has had a role in the development of private reading and for creating the kinds of private spaces required by it. For example, the beds in ancient Greece were very impractical for reading, while the Romans already had separate beds for reading and sleeping.[31] Later, different kinds of reading stands and devices were developed for easing the engagement with the earlier large-sized books.[32] Again, the importance of the octavo book for the development of private reading becomes apparent; only after its introduction was it possible for literary reading to become an everyday routine in a more wide-ranging sense.

Even though the octavo book turned literary reading into a less place-specific undertaking, the importance of place for literary reading has not vanished. Research shows the importance many avid readers attribute to the place of reading and, when asked, they can give very detailed descriptions of their favorite reading places.[33] One respondent, for example, tells, “I love to read in bed or in places where I feel safe.”[34] So, it seems that something like the everydayness of the everyday creates an ample setting for literary reading, but, at the same, this activity can itself contribute to this experiential mood as well. Research also indicates that some avid readers attach an almost ritualistic meaning to their daily silent reading moment, involving, for example, anticipation and preparation. These ritualistic aspects of literary reading seem to be at their strongest when deciding on something new to read. Burke sums up his empirical research on this issue, noting that in such cases readers’ minds tend to “fill with thoughts in a warm-up for the mental exercises to come.”[35]

Literary reading can thus be highly and intimately connected to everyday lives. This analysis also provides insight into the potentially unique character of the intimacy involved in literary reading suggested at the beginning of the article. This is because it seems that literary reading can be a part of our everyday lives in ways that are more prone to give rise to the sense of everydayness just analyzed and the intimacy accompanying it than other forms of art engagement. The lack of place-specificity already discussed points in this direction. Even though, for example, we can watch films and listen to music daily, especially as physical objects books seem to have a potentially more present-at-hand place, to use Martin Heidegger’s famous notion, in the texture of our everyday lives than movies and musical works can, even in the form of DVDs, CDs or LPs.[36] We can, for example, carry books with us in our everyday and engage with them without any external equipment, imagine touching them upon seeing them on a table, and even fiddle with them. These undertakings can also lead to musing about what we have read and what we expect upon returning to the book we are reading.

These observations are related to the fact that reading novels especially involves gaps; even avid readers do not usually read novels at one go. Kivy, in fact, suggests that the gaps in reading are an essential part of the reading experience of a novel. He writes: “It makes little sense to think of the gaps in literary fiction as, somehow, a necessary evil… The gaps, rather, must be considered a positive part of our literary experience, where thinking about what we have read goes on as part of the literary experience.”[37] This implies that the literary works we are in the process of reading can be part of our everyday lives even when we are not directly engaged with reading them, potentially coloring our experience of the everyday with a hazy and not easily articulatable sense of presence. This is not usually the case with films and works of music, at least not to a similar degree. It simply seems to be a different thing to take a break from reading a novel than to stop listening to a four-movement symphony after the first two movements, with the intention of continuing the next day. Unlike the former, the musical work is intended to be experienced at one go and hence does not spill over into our everyday lives in the kind of reflective and intimate way literary works can during gaps in reading.[38]

Especially when literary reading is approached as a routine, a kind of texture of expectations is revealed underlying the practice that seems different from such textures of other forms of art engagement. This texture of expectations is at the heart of the sense of everydayness that I believe can accompany avid readers’ literary lives, which, in turn, suggests that the intimacy this specific type of everydayness brings to literary reading can, indeed, be unique as well.

4. Trust in the author

I want to bring up one further source of intimacy in literary reading. In this case, the author enters the picture too. As we saw in the beginning, the author has a key role in Holliday’s analysis of emotional intimacy in literature. His explanation centers on unpacking the reader’s sense of connection to the thoughts, style, and themes embodied in a particular author’s work. The reader’s connection to the author, however, can also take the form of trust. But trust itself can take different forms. It can, for example, involve epistemic factors, in the sense that the reader trusts that reading the works of a particular author will bring significant and well-thought-out insights and perspectives into the issues that interest them.

This aspect of literary engagement is part of a more general question regarding justified trust in second-hand sources of knowledge, or “tellings,” as such sources are often called in social epistemology. The act of telling something to someone — for example, “Silent reading was an alien concept in the ancient world” — can be described as an “offer of trust” to one’s interlocutor. In such acts, the teller asks the interlocutor to trust her or him by indicating willingness to take responsibility over the truth of the telling and, by extension, over some of the beliefs of the hearer. The act of telling transforms the normative relationship between the teller and the hearer, in that now the hearer can hold the teller accountable and subject to criticism, in case the telling turns out to be false or in some other ways epistemically dubious or under-thought. This type of bond between the teller and the hearer is seen as the underlying structure of relations of epistemic trust.[39]

I believe this type of epistemic trust can also characterize readers’ relation to literary authors. This trust relation, moreover, can deepen as the reader gradually starts to grasp the full thoughtfulness and insightfulness of the literary work being read. We can also sometimes detect important epistemic virtues, such as intellectual honesty, attentiveness, thoroughness, perseverance, and courage, in an author’s treatment of a theme in their work, in addition to feeling how powerfully some authors stake themselves in their works.[40] Both of these factors, I believe, strengthens the sense of epistemic trust readers can feel toward authors. Some authors can even evolve, in readers’ minds, into figures whom Linda Zagzebski calls “epistemic exemplars.”[41] Such epistemic figures come to occupy an especially important role in our lives because they serve as kinds of guides in our attempts to build an epistemically credible worldview. Zagzebski summarizes:

[The epistemic exemplar] may have special insights that I trust, and in many cases I would not have those insights if I were forming the belief independently. The general point is that an epistemic authority is someone who does what I would do if I were more conscientious or better than I am at satisfying the aim of conscientiousness — getting at the truth.[42]

We find epistemically exemplary figures exemplary precisely because we feel they are more successful in the epistemic endeavors that we value and pursue. According to Zagzebski, our trust relation to epistemically exemplary figures is also often permeated by an important emotional component, most importantly admiration that, she believes, in some cases can even justify our epistemic trust on someone.[43]

I see no reason why some literary authors cannot be understood as these types of epistemic exemplars. After all, even highly prominent philosophers and other intellectuals often mention literary authors as important inspirations for their thinking.[44] In other words, the emotional intimacy we feel toward an author might not just involve what Holliday terms “expressive potency” but an epistemic potency as well.

The issue of trusting the author also relates to the themes of the previous section, for the authors we trust are important structural factors of our hobby of literary reading, for example, in the sense that we recurrently return to the works of such authors to improve our grasp of important insights, into the human condition or an historical event, that we felt in them. In the words of Wayne Booth, the authors we trust become “the company we keep,” a phrase that is intended to encapsulate the ethical view of literature Booth develops in the book of the same name. This ethical view, Booth tells, is based on the assumption that “what makes life human, and what makes human life worth living, are our relations of trust and affection,” which also nicely summarizes the view of the intimacy that I believe authorial trust can involve.[45]

Here I especially am thinking of authors who devote their whole oeuvres to some specific theme. Toni Morrison is a good example of such an author, and it seems that for many Black readers she is an exemplary literary figure precisely in the sense outlined here.[46] But the temporal difference between the reader and the object of their trust can be much larger. In his Travels with Herodotus, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński revisits some of the places the early Greek historian Herodotus writes about in his The Histories, written around 430 BCE, and tells about his inspiring travel companion:

We wandered together for years. And although one travels best alone, I do not think we disturbed each other — we were separated by twenty-five hundred years and also by distance of another kind, born of my feelings of respect. For although Herodotus was always straightforward, kind, and gentle in relation to others, there was always with me the feeling of rubbing shoulders undeservedly, perhaps presumptuously, but always thankfully, with a giant.[47]

Morrison and Herodotus serve as good examples of the authors readers keep, and the relationship readers develop toward such authors shows how trust in the author can give its own intimate flavor to literary reading.

The potential epistemic depth of readers’ trust toward authors also suggests some new ways in which the intimacy involved in literary reading can even be unique. For this epistemic aspect of reading simultaneously can reinforce the sense of trust felt toward the literary author beyond the trust we feel toward artists in fields of art where epistemic concerns are less central to the engagement. At least, the sense of epistemic trust I feel toward my favorite literary authors is much stronger than it is toward my favorite composers — although for me, of the two, classical music is generally the dearer artform.

As already argued, in many literary cases we can have a sense that an author is taking responsibility over the ways in which their work inspires us to think and feel about the considered themes in a manner similar to other epistemic exemplars of our lives. This, I believe, is a deeper sense of trust than, for example, the trust we feel towards an artist to provide us with an aesthetically rewarding experience, such as the trust I feel towards the composer John Adams. The difference is explained precisely by the fact that we can have a sense that the authors we epistemically look up to take some epistemic burden for us. We can trust that the insights we glean from their work as part of our cognitive resources for understanding the world have the author’s backing. At the same time, the engagement receives a more intimate flavor compared to less epistemically driven art engagements.

While my aim is in no way to deny that our relationship to nonliterary artists could not take an important epistemic form — someone like the visual artist William Kentridge or the film director Pedro Almodóvar comes to mind — the account of epistemic trust put forth in this section indicates that, of the different arts, literature is an especially natural place for the manifestation of this type of trust and consequently also for the specific kind of intimacy attributed to it. Even if not ultimately exclusive to literature, the different analyses of the paper, I think, do show that the three dimensions of intimacy identified can come together in literary reading in an especially powerful way — in one package as it were.

5. Closing notes on the future

Given how interesting, experiential features literary reading can involve, it is somewhat strange that it has been in a steady decline for years.[48] The reasons behind this decline would merit a much closer analysis, but a consensus is emerging that the general digitalization of culture brought about by the invention and spread of the internet is a major factor. As a result, not only have new forms of entertainment from social media to different streaming services emerged to compete with literature for our spare time but our whole stimulus environment is considered to be unfavorable for the kind of deep reading required by literature.[49] Instead, skim reading is becoming the new normal.[50]

Nicholas Carr has provided an interesting analysis of this development. He claims that concentrated literary reading, in fact, is a highly unnatural activity to us humans, even “a strange anomaly” in the history of humankind. For because of our evolutionary heritage, our natural frame of mind is to be attentive to external stimuli and on the alert to respond to environmental changes with an appropriate reaction. Literary reading, in turn, requires an almost complete reversal from our brains from this natural state, namely “an unbroken attention to a single, static object.”[51] Carr fears that once our brains have become adapted to our contemporary stimuli-intense environments, it might be difficult for us to re-establish the neural pathways behind literary reading.[52] Our brains are becoming increasingly hungry for stimuli very different in kind from those offered by concentrated silent reading, turning our brains “into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.”[53]

Carr also believes that this development can have consequences for the themes of this paper, for he thinks “the cost” of our digitalized age might well be the “further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader.”[54] I do not want to end with yet another sermon on the dangerous effects of our digitalized age on literary reading,[55] but the different ways of understanding the intimacy of literary reading put forth in this paper, I think, do show that this development might not just concern our attention span and capacity to read, as many have feared, but also the state of an intriguing sphere of experience, silent literary reading, which also has a surprisingly deep historical background.[56]


Kalle Puolakka

Kalle Puolakka, PhD, is docent of aesthetics at the University of Helsinki. Along with philosophy of literature, his research interests include philosophy of interpretation, philosophy of music, everyday aesthetics, and Dewey’s aesthetics. Among his recent publications are “Learning from Literary Experience,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1, 56 (2022), 56–73, and, with Thomas Leddy, “Dewey’s Aesthetics,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (2021): He has previously published five articles in Contemporary Aesthetics, in volumes 2009, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018.

Published on September 15, 2022.

Cite this article: Kalle Puolakka, “Three Dimensions of Intimacy in Literary Reading,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 20 (2022), accessed date.



[1] See, for example, Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature. Translated, with an Introduction, by Ann Smock (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 192, Michael Burke, Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion. An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind (New York & London: Routledge, 2011), 95, Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: Flamingo, 1996), 17, and Irene Vallejo, Papyrus. Kirjan katkeamaton tarina. Translated into Finnish by Taina Helkamo (Helsinki: Kustantamo S&S), 80. Vallejo’s book is scheduled to appear in English from Knopf in October 2022. Page references are to the Finnish edition of the book. Translations from the Finnish translation are by the author of the article.

[2] With this claim, I am not making any Hegelian-like assumptions about the hierarchy of the arts. It is, of course, also possible for there to be forms of intimacy that are exhibited by some other artforms, but not by literature. This possibility is not explored in the paper.

[3] Georges Poulet, “The Phenomenology of Reading,” New Literary History, 1, 1 (1969), 53–68; ref. on 55.

[4] Poulet, “The Phenomenology of Reading,” 57.

[5] Poulet, “The Phenomenology of Reading,” 67.

[6] John Holliday, “Emotional Intimacy in Literature,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 58, 1 (2017), 1–16; ref. on 10.

[7] Holliday, “Emotional Intimacy,” 4–5.

[8] Holliday, “Emotional Intimacy,” 11–16.

[9] Vallejo, Papyrus, 80.

[10] I am aware that the historical frame of this paper is highly West-centric, but I do believe that the later aesthetic and philosophical analyses of the intimacy of literary reading I develop have a much more universal scope.

[11] Manguel, A History of Reading, 251.

[12] Manguel, A History of Reading, 45.

[13] Vallejo, Papyrus, 392, 396. [Editor’s note: Here and for the rest of the paper, we follow what is now becoming a common practice in English academic discourse to identify a singular subject with a plural pronoun, such as ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ in order to avoid a binary gender identification system. The author prefers ‘they’ to ‘he or she’ because it is simpler and sounds more natural in his native Finnish language.]

[14] Nicholas Carr, Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), 60–65.

[15] Vallejo, Papyrus,78.

[16] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961), 114.

[17] Manguel, A History of Reading, 43, 49.

[18] Manguel, A History of Reading, 50.

[19] Carr, Shallows, 70–71.

[20] Peter Kivy, The Performance of Reading. An Essay in the Philosophy of Literature (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 18.

[21] Kivy, The Performance of Reading, 35–41.

[22] Kivy, The Performance of Reading, 63.

[23] These reflections on the inner voice of the literary reader are inspired by Don Ihde, Listening and Voice. Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd Edition (Buffalo: SUNY Press, 2007), 139–140.

[24] Vallejo, Papyrus, 530.

[25] I am aware of the word “bookworm,” but at least my understanding is that it can be used in a slightly belittling sense, too, which is why I refrain from using it in the article.

[26] See, for example, Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday-Life and World-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 23–31.

[27] Arto Haapala, “On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, eds. Jonathan M. Smith & Andrew Light (New York: Columbia University Press), 39–55; ref. on 50.

[28] Francisca Pérez Carreño, “The Aesthetic Value of the Unnoticed,” in Paths from the Philosophy of Art to Everyday Aesthetics, eds. Oiva Kuisma, Sanna Lehtinen, and Harri Mäcklin (Helsinki: The Finnish Society for Aesthetics, 2019),  148–166 ref. on 164.

[29] Francisca Pérez Carreño, “Theatricality and Everyday Aesthetics,” in Social and Technological Aspects of Art. Challenges of the ‘New Normal,’ eds. Iris Vidmar Jovanovic and Valentina Marianna Stupnik (Rijeka: Philosophy Department, Rijeka University, 2022), 93–103, ref. on 97.

[30] For a closer look on the possible two-tiered nature of everyday experience, see Kalle Puolakka, “Habits and Functions in Everyday Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics 16 (2018), sec. 3. (accessed 26 August 2022).

[31] Manguel, A History of Reading, 154–159.

[32] Manguel, A History of Reading, 125–132.

[33] Burke, Literary Reading, 97–99.

[34] Burke, Literary Reading, 100.

[35] Burke, Literary Reading, 87.

[36] I am not sure whether my use of the notion “present-at-hand” exactly corresponds to Heidegger’s sense, but I believe the context should make my intended meaning clear.

[37] Peter Kivy, Once-Told Tales: An Essay in Literary Aesthetics (Malden: Blackwell, 2011), 81, italics in the original.

[38] For a more extensive explorations of the role of gaps for literary experience see Kalle Puolakka, “Novels in the Everyday: An Aesthetic Investigation,” Estetika. The Central European Journal of Aesthetics 12, 2 (2019), 206–222; ref. on 217–220.

[39] See especially Richard Moran, The Exchange of Words. Speech, Testimony, and Intersubjectivity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 55–57, 208.

[40] See Linda Zagzebski Epistemic Values: Collected Papers in Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 34 and Moran, The Exchange of Words, 185.

[41] Linda Zagzebski, Epistemic Authority. A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 93.

[42] Zagzebski, Epistemic Authority, 111.

[43] Zagzebski, Epistemic Authority, 87–92.

[44] See, for example, Jukka Mikkonen, Philosophy, Literature, and Understanding. On Reading and Cognition (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 108–109.

[45] Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 173.

[46] See, for example, Zadie Smith, “Daughters of Toni Morrison: A Remembrance,” Pen America (2019). (accessed: 26 August 2022).

[47] Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, trans. Klara Glowczewska (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 271.

[48] For some relevant statistics, see Kalle Puolakka “The Literary Space in the Covid-19 Pandemic” in Social and Technological Aspects of Art. Challenges of the ‘New Normal’, eds. Iris Vidmar Jovanovic and Valentina Marianna Stupnik (Rijeka: Philosophy Department, Rijeka University, 2022), 229–248; ref. on 229.

[49] Carr, Shallows, 64.

[50] Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (New York: Harper, 2018), 75–78.

[51] Carr, Shallows, 64. Italics added.

[52] Carr, Shallows, 34–35.

[53] Carr, Shallows, 119.

[54] Carr, Shallows, 108.

[55] In particular, I am not denying that we could not form intimate intellectual attachments within the space of the digital world. Thanks to YouTube, I have, for example, formed such a relationship to the economist Glenn Loury, the host of the podcast The Glenn Show, as well as to his regular conversation partner, the linguist John McWhorther. See: (accessed 26 August 2022). That being said, I am also really looking forward to Loury’s forthcoming biography as a possibility to deepen the sense of connection I have developed toward him on the basis of his podcast.

[56] Earlier versions of this paper were given at the research seminar of the ARESMUR-research group, University of Murcia, and at the Torino Aesthetics Research Seminar (online). I would like to thank the audiences of the seminars for lively conversations. A special thanks to Maria José Alcaraz León, Francisca Pérez Carreno, Matilde Carrasco Barranco, Nemesío Garcia-Carril Pry, and Alessandro Bertinetto. The comments by the two anonymous reviewers were also of great help in preparing the final manuscript. A final thanks to The Finnish Cultural Foundation for funding.