APPEALING TO VULNERABILITY
Daniel Coleman and In Bed with the Word
(LETTERS • BOOKS)
BY ELIZABETH DIEMANUELE
“If reading is to have any impact, it requires a posture of expectation and receptivity.”
— Daniel Coleman, In Bed with the Word
As Daniel Coleman’s In Bed with the Word reminds us, reading is a vulnerable practice; it “does a painful and positive thing at once,” he writes, isolating the reader from his or her immediate surroundings while also connecting the reader to individuals or communities beyond his or her knowing (59). Just as we turn to the text in times of need or meditation, the text itself needs us to listen, openly and without pre-judgement.
Reading, for Coleman, is slow, reflective, spiritual, and requires our full attention and patience. Unlike the printed text, our posture to reading is not easily produced. With the King James Bible being among one of the most widely commoditized, profitable texts in the world, it seems to me that Coleman makes a valuable point about the imminent need to return to reading’s reflective, spiritual potential. Reading, at its best, can offer the reader growth, knowledge, love, self-knowledge, and empathy for others (17); but, it requires a “vulnerable longing” (17), or what Coleman later describes as, “a posture of expectation and receptivity” (60). Posture, that is, our openness to the words on the page, is where reading develops its spiritual importance.
I believe Coleman uses “vulnerability” quite purposefully. Vulnerability, at its root, means “having the power to wound” (OED Online). It also means to be “susceptible” or “open” to harm. To take on Coleman’s posture to reading means being open to the text’s testimony of the human condition, a vulnerability that Coleman suggests is missing from our lives with the emergence of more immediate, commoditized, tech-savvy communications.
After recently graduating with a Master’s in English, I recognize that this approach to reading was oftentimes missing from our seminar table. Whether it was a critical theorist, historical text, or even a scientific statistic, there was always someone in the room equipped with this knowledge, ready to dismiss the words on the page. These experiences are comparable to Coleman’s exchange with his student, William, who says he reads to “enter the great debates” and outsmart those before him (20-1). In both cases, the limitless availability of knowledge and communication fuels a desire to challenge the integrity of the text. This elitism (or, perhaps, intellectual skepticism) reveals how the text can be just as needy as the vulnerable reader, as the text cannot defend itself to facts, misinterpretation, or ignorance. While critique is an important part of interpretation – for, like relationships, not all texts are well-intentioned or truthful or genuine – there is a fine line between thoughtful critique and harmful criticism. We can harm the text just as much as its words can harm us. This point is not lost on Coleman.
So, if reading is as vulnerable as Coleman’s In Bed with the Word and my reflection imply, what’s the point? Can we not find other avenues to grow, to obtain knowledge, or to even feel empathy for others? Perhaps. And, yet, I am reminded of a passage from Coleman’s text with relation to one of my more recent reading experiences. Coleman writes:
And, because it cuts to the chase, because it separates the joint from the marrow, the book of grief, rather than tasting only sour and bitter, can actually nourish us. Strangely, as in Ezekiel’s case, it can taste sweet as honey. For in speaking honestly to our hurt, to our human pain, the book of grief can put a healing hand upon the parts of us that need desperately to be acknowledged and touched. (102)
Words, in their expression and intimacy, can provide solace for unspoken pains; and, they can nourish the fragmented or missing connections in our lives. For me, A.M. Klein’s protagonist in The Second Scroll expresses this potential best. After reading the poetry of unnamed Holocaust survivors, he reflects:
It was as if I was spectator to the healing of torn flesh, or heard a broken bone come together, set, and grow again. Wonderful is the engrafting of skin, but more wonderful the million busy hushed cells, in secret planning, stitching, stretching, until—the wound is vanished. (82)
This is the spiritual, connective potential of reading that Daniel Coleman appeals to in his text, In Bed with the Word. I will certainly return to it in the future.
Elizabeth DiEmanuele is a recent graduate from McMaster University and currently lives in Hamilton, Ontario. To learn about Elizabeth’s writing and academic work, she welcomes you to visit smartedits.org.
Coleman, Daniel. In Bed with the Word. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2009. Print.
Klein, A.M. The Second Scroll. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009. Print.
“vulnerable, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 19 February 2016.