What happens when we read?
Why do you read? If you're like me, then you'd probably answer that you enjoy reading. Often enough, it is probably truer that I enjoy having read.
In a quantifying age, when so many of our actions are a means to an end and words are our most precise way of exchanging basic information, what pleasure do we actually get out of the act of reading?
The Quiet Volume, written and composed by British artists Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells, explores these questions. At the Free Library of Philadelphia on 19th and Vine Street, armed with a pair of iPods, you and one other person are led to a table and sat next to one-another in front of a stack of books. A voice begins to whisper in your ear, telling you what to do and what you are doing, guiding you by unusual routes into an exploration of the deeply personal act of reading.
As you delve into one book in your stack, the hissing voice slows you down to focus on one word. Look at each letter of the word. Look at the mark it makes on the page. Feel the way your mouth makes its sound. It takes you back in time, returning you to the moments you first puzzled over deranged scribbles on a page and were told that they mean something that you have to learn to decode.
It speeds you up, sending you flipping through pages to find specific passage, a hectic scavenger hunt for words, scenes and ideas. Can you even experience and enjoy the stories at this pace?
How much lighter would this book be without the ink? So little difference between this and a blank page. The seductive job of literature is placed dynamically against the nihilist's perception à la Hamlet — "words, words, words."
You follow the words with your finger as you read. You think about this connection, and wonder if there is a direct link between the paper, your traveling finger, and your mind. You look closely at the words on the page, the texture of the pulp, and the fabric of your own skin. Reminded that letters are symbols, both meaningful and arbitrary, you explore the images that those symbols create both on paper and in your mind.
There are other, visceral pleasures here. The whispering voice coming through the iPod headphones is intimate and palpable. The soft explosions of the consonants and the hissing susurration create an enchanting music, tapping against your ears and reminding you of the link between sound and its physical qualities.
Look at the page, directs the voice. Try not to let it mean anything. Try to see it as a pattern, or a design. You can't help it; the words and their meanings leap up like belligerent children.
Does this happen, even as the recording tells you that it will? If it does, how much of that is an effect of your mind, and how much of it is suggestion? The show is littered with delicate and surprising elaborations of the dynamics between words and your mind, and it illustrates the wrestling match that goes on between the reader and the book.
The Quiet Volume is at turns cranial and experiential, funny and sensual, full of subtly engineered surprises, and is as unusual as a Fringe show gets.