by GEOFF MARTIN
A DISCERNIBLE TRAIL:
ON RE-READING “IN BED WITH THE WORD”
SAN FRANCISCO REVIEWS HAMILTON
In bed with the Word
[Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009, $19.95]
I first read Daniel Coleman’s In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics aloud in bed, ten years ago this month, passing the copy back and forth with my partner. It seemed just that kind of book, one that refused to be skimmed, that asked to be enunciated. At the time, I was a graduate student at McMaster University, living near the bluffs at the top of Dundurn, and had just completed a course in Canadian literature with Dr. Coleman. I was also a few years downstream from a crisis of faith, no longer a fish out of water exactly but still floundering to find my way.
I rarely take the time to re-read a book, ever-anxious about the many other titles I should have read by now. But, in keeping with the wisdom emanating from In Bed with the Word, this is one to which I keep returning. Doing so puts me back in touch with what it first offered and continues to surprise me with what I missed before. Or, maybe, what I’m ready now to hear.
A decade ago, I was struck by Coleman’s description of the two poles of interpretation, the two extremes of reading practice. Borrowing from Paul Ricoeur, Coleman lays out his understanding of a Hermeneutics of Affirmation or Faith, where “a text is appreciated and analyzed for its truth and beauty” and a Hermeneutics of Suspicion, where “a text is unaware of its own motivations or contents,” its illusions needing to be stripped away by social and political analysis (32). At one pole: a religious veneration. At the other: the vigour of deconstruction.
The point, he repeatedly emphasizes, is not to advocate one approach over the other—together, they form an inescapable tension in modern life. His concern is that we not neglect the posture of openness that the spirituality of reading demands: “We need to read words that draw out our surprise,” he writes, that “call up our admiration, devastates our current assumptions, and calls us to a wider experience than we currently have. We need to read books that are bigger than ourselves” (37).
This idea seemed countercultural to me then, and it remains especially countercultural now, in 2020, living as we do on the dark side of the social media experiment where online reading is algorithmically keyed to replicate our angers and anxieties. But In Bed with the Word is more than a call to simply log off and pick up a “good” book for a change. And it is frank about the ancient arguments against reading—the wisdom of silence, the greed of knowledge, the dangers of misinterpretation. It offers, instead, a compelling call to attend to the spiritual dimensions of reading. It urges me to consider the ways in which reading—that paradoxically solitary and companionable practice of sitting with a book and its absent author—can help me “to connect meaningfully with myself, the world around me, and to the Otherness of God and humanity” (39).
That spiritual through-line of In Bed with the Word, especially the way it draws quietly on the tradition of negative theology, is what stands out to me now. Coleman repeatedly calls attention to “the structure of absence” in which we live: distant family relations perhaps, far-flung friends, that itchy loneliness of consumerist individualism, the sense of the absence of God from the pressing injustices and despair of our world. The act of reading presents us with a similar experience—sitting alone and hungering for connection, finding presence in the structure of absence. By reading an Other’s words, whoever they may be, with openness and discernment we can sense their breath breathing inside our own. There is an eroticism here, a hint of danger premised on both the reader and writer’s vulnerability, a mysterious and almost incarnational connection to other people—and perhaps also to God—across space and time.
What’s most compelling for me though is the way this thinking about spirituality is not premised on the false necessity of direct experience. It is inescapably mediated by the tangible object of the book (or iPad…) in our lap—and we know it too! Written words, as with musical notations, Coleman points out, need to be played, imaginatively and responsively, in order to bring a work to life. So we set about puzzling out a writer’s meaning through the sieve of our own contexts, acknowledging the cultural and economic forces that underpin a given book and considering the various layers of translation embedded in any text. We remain in tune with the pleasure-work of reading and equally aware, all the while, of the limits of our own understanding, the cloud of unknowing through which we peer.
For me, the most enduring influence of In Bed with the Word is the way the book models a humble, spiritual practice of reading while still remaining fully engaged in the ostensibly secular arena of cultural politics and critical inquiry. There’s a discernible trail marked out for us here that threads between the magnetic poles of affirmation and suspicion. Ten years on, I find that this book continues to shine a good bit of light along the path ahead.
GEOFF MARTIN is a CNF contributing editor at Barren Magazine. His place-based and environmental essays have appeared most recently in Boulevard, The Common, Slag Glass City, and Creative Nonfiction and have been nominated for two upcoming Pushcart Prizes. Originally from southwestern Ontario, Geoff now lives in San Francisco. His work is available at www.geoff-martin.com. ALSO see Geoff Martin’s article Slave Days in the Queen’s Bush in HA&L issue 13.1.