Lessons in Reading

12 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

After surviving the jihadi terrorist attack on journalists and cartoonists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, journalist Philippe Lançon wrote an extensive book on his experience of being a victim of the assault and a patient in two Parisian hospitals for many months. The period of recovering and the reconstruction of his face also was one of transformation, contemplation and reading. We could consider his autobiographical text a ‘journal de deuil’ [journal of grief] as Le Monde des Livres claimed, a ‘grand livre de littérature’ (Gallimard, n.d.) [great book of literature] and an account of convalescence: the narrator must undergo reconstructive surgery, is silenced for months, and communicates via a whiteboard. The book, entitled Le Lambeau [the shred] (2018), was published by Gallimard and translated in English as Disturbance, Surviving Charlie Hebdo (Lançon, 2019). In the Dutch translation, De Flard, the book is categorised as ‘novel’ [roman]. Specific (sub)titles and categorisations, obviously, function as paratext suggesting the frame in which the book could be read and interpreted. For anglophone readers the political (spectacle) context is underlined – even though only one chapter of the book describes the real atrocious scene of violence —, in the Netherlands the ‘novelistic’ genre of the text is brought to the fore underlining the fragility and resilience of a French citizen backed up by references to the literary canon.

My main claim is that students need lessons in reading, to become aware of different strategies, which, like different methodologies, can put a specific light on the textual material.

How to read and respond to such a text, is a question that not many students will ask. For most of them, reading is just a practice of describing the plot, interpreting words and metaphors, while keeping the main focus on ‘recognition’: on identifying oneself in the text. My observation, based on the many university courses that I developed over the years, is that students often lack the skill of engaging in a hermeneutic dialogue, defined as the capability of bringing up various questions in response to the text and the author position and, subsequently, formulating various answers. Most students do not have knowledge on how different practices of reading can be instigated and performed. In what follows, I will describe several reading strategies – most of them related to research paradigms within humanities research – that could be used in core text courses, and, successively, I will perform a reading of Lançon’s text. My main claim is that students need lessons in reading, to become aware of different strategies, which, like different methodologies, can put a specific light on the textual material. Reading is an ongoing transformative process that invites the flexibility and responsiveness of readers. Encouraging students in their reading is a very much needed impetus to creative thinking.

Close, deconstructive, distant, symptomatic, surface, and diffractive reading strategies

Most of our students learned how to read at around six years of age, and do not ponder much about the wonderful skill that they can perform since this early age for the rest of their lives. Most of us, in fact, learned to ‘close read’ at secondary school, being trained in observing narrator perspectives, themes and metaphors, and time and place within texts. Practicing reading at university indeed mostly implies close reading, inviting students to analyse and describe the composition (structure) and the plot (events, story line) of the narrative. After analysis and description follows interpretation, implying that the meaning of the story is explained (adjusted, so to say, to the textual architecture). Close reading, as it was made famous by the New Critics in the 20th century was a reaction on both the intentional fallacy (the meaning of the text was seen as the message of the author) and the affective fallacy (the meaning of the text was taken as the subjective and impressionist response of the reader). The New Critics stimulated the examination of form (syntaxis and semantics) and content in their entanglement. (Van Luxemburg et al., 1981, p. 66) Close reading encourages conscious attention to the composition and coherence of the text: readers must be aware that every detail has relevance, even if it is insignificant. (Cf. Barthes, 1986, p. 141-149) In this insignificance of details the text underlines its fictional status: this is not the ‘real’ reality but a representation. Close reading was (and still is) the practice that most historians of literature performed for many decades. It was done in silence, which gave the act of reading a sphere of intimacy.

In the 1970s and 1980s the practice of close reading was criticised by post-structuralist scholars (such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, or Barbara Johnson) who argued that a literary text is an associative construction based on specific linguistic and philosophical patterns, echoes and ideas that do not necessarily represent a specific contextual reality. Deconstructive reading implies that various intertextual traces in a text are brought to the fore and stimulate thinking and writing. The main difference with close reading is that the idea of a ‘correct’ (formal or contextual) reading of a text is left behind: the reading practice is associative, dynamic and never closed off. The assertiveness of the reader is the drive of the reading process. The reader becomes a writer herself.

In Defoe’s writing bourgeois culture finds expression.

Distant reading is another reaction on close reading and has become popular in the context of digital humanities. This reading strategy is computer-assisted and based on the analyses of keywords and networks. A digital corpus of literary texts is used for the reading processes. Franco Moretti’s pivotal work on the bourgeois in literature and history (Moretti, 2013) demonstrates how specific words, grammar, and concepts appear in texts of a certain era, and how these terms and styles relate to changing ideas and societal hegemonic structures. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for instance, the use of ‘past gerund, past tense, and infinitival clauses embodies an idea of temporality … that excludes symmetry and hence also the stability … that proceeds it. … [This is] the style of the useful. Of Prose. Of the capitalist spirit. Of modern progress.' (Moretti, 2013, p. 55-56) In Defoe’s writing bourgeois culture finds expression. Distant reading builds an interpretation by comparing many text segments and data, and constructing an analysis based on different textual elements.

Symptomatic reading is a strategy of reading that is inspired by philosopher Gilles Deleuze who considered literary authors as the analysts of contemporary cultures, as clinicians who diagnose our world. The rationale is that a literary text is not about the memories or experiences of one single person, but is about the discovery of ‘the power of an impersonal’, of ‘a singularity’. (Deleuze, 1993, p. 3) What we can learn from reading fiction, is the opposite of what we learn from doing empirical science: the latter is about facts and concrete experiences, literary fiction is about singularity (Attridge, 2004) and open-endedness. Reading literature challenges the reader in getting beyond the empirically based argument to enter a sphere of string figures (cf. Haraway, 2016), creativity, and becoming. As such, literature offers knowledge on the world we live in, it helps us to understand behaviour and experiences, it invites us to acknowledge the perspectives of others.

Surface reading in contrast implies materiality, the intricate verbal structure of literary language, literal meaning, the location of patterns that exist within and across texts, and the surface as an affective and ethical stance.

An argument against symptomatic reading and pro surface reading came from Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in a 2009 contribution to a special issue of Representations. Best and Marcus consider symptomatic reading as a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say. Symptomatic reading has gone too deep and made the surface invisible while it was drenched in psychoanalysis and Marxism. (Best & Marcus, 2009) The symptomatic reader makes a political point, while disregarding what the text manifestly says. Surface reading in contrast implies materiality, the intricate verbal structure of literary language, literal meaning, the location of patterns that exist within and across texts, and the surface as an affective and ethical stance. (Apter & Freedgood, 2009; Best & Marcus, 2009) Breaking down the too strict dichotomy between symptom and surface, we could underline that surface is an extension of close reading, and that symptomatic reading broadens the horizon of texts while weaving them in a global cultural context.

In a world of complex issues of globalisation, related to climate change, poverty, migration, and energy transition we could go one step further and propose yet another strategy of reading, focussing on texts not as existing, bounded, stable entities but as entanglements of more-than-human relationships. (Bellingham, 2022) This idea of reading is based on the conception of texts that intra-act through one another, while enacting new patterns of engagement and exclusion. (Barad, 2010) Diffractive reading is in line with deconstructive reading as it is based on traces and rhizomatic connections, while putting more emphasis on texts and textuality not as human communication but as forms of knowledge beyond the human.

This collection of reading strategies is not final – we could add other strategies as well – but aims at demonstrating how various paradigms influence the practices of reading. To me as a teacher it is not important to steer students in their reading, to make them choose to use one or the other method, but to raise awareness of what they do as they read and why. Combinations of strategies are helpful, but always in relation to the question: ‘what text am I reading and why does the text matter to me’. Lessons in reading are relevant to any university education and especially to a humanities and social sciences curriculum.

Pitié-Salpêtière as the Zauberberg in Paris

Let’s go back to Lançon’s chronicle on the Charlie Hebdo massacre and its aftermath, and discuss two of the reading strategies. Le Lambeau was written after the attack in January 2015 and published in 2018. The book ends when the protagonist, Philippe Lançon, is in New York, ten months after the attack, and hears about the massacre in the Bataclan theatre at which 130 people died. This ‘Epilogue’ after twenty chapters in which Philippe’s convalescence was central, marks the political reference of the text: radical Islamist terrorism is something that is real and that continues in France and Europe. The contingency of being at a certain place at the wrong moment (be it a theatre, metro, boulevard, or railway station) makes us aware of the fragility of late modern civil society. 

In a close reading of the text, it becomes clear that the composition is plain while the narrator and protagonist are the same, and Philippe, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo and Liberation, can be identified as one of the real historical victims of the assault. In twenty chapters spreading in time over more or less ten months, and in place over two specific hospitals in Paris (La Salpêtrière and Les Invalides), we read how Philippe recovers but transforms as well. We follow his intimate physical problems: he cannot speak nor eat and drink because of the catheter, his bandages get wet while his jaw is wrapped-up, he is depending on others for his everyday existence. At some points he feels as if exiled from his own life. (Lançon, 2019) We also realise how he does not think much or aggressively about the two attackers. Most of the description is factual and precise, also in the moments of the attack, when the protagonist experiences himself as doubled: ‘The voice of the man I still was said to me: “Hmm, we’ve been hit in the hand. But we don’t feel anything.” We were two, he and I, he who was beneath me, more exactly, and I levitating above, and he addressed me from below, using the first-person plural.’ (Lançon, 2019) Later in the period of recovery, Philippe becomes literally a double, named Monsieur Tarbes, when in the military hospital he has to use a nickname: ‘In Les Invalides, I was never called by any other name. Very soon, Monsieur Tarbes was living his own life within these walls from the classical age …he was neither Philippe Lançon nor a pseudonym of Philippe Lançon. He was a heteronym …’. (Lançon, 2019)

The close reading can be extended by a deconstructive reading that underlines the diary of grief as a literary journal. Philippe conveys that he does not read much literature during his hospital stay but thinks about literary authors and texts very often. In fact, there are only three texts that he (re)reads: M. Proust, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, in particular the scene of the passing away of the grandmother, Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena (Kafka suffering from tuberculosis) and Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. The latter is the literary text mentioned most since the Alpine sanatorium as hermetic world seems close to both Parisian hospitals. One passage from Mann, in which Joachim explains what time in the sanatorium means, is read by Philippe every morning and he then realises that ‘Joachim and Hans had become much closer to me, more intimate, than the people who, entering here … came from ‘the world below’ and quickly returned to it. … Like Joachim, like Hans Gastorp at the end of a few hundred pages, I had the sensation that I would never leave and that not leaving was going to provide me, if it was possible, with a little wisdom. I had to leave neither the hospital nor the book, the latter being the instruction manual of the former. (Lançon, 2019) Mann rather than Proust demonstrates that time is not ‘regained’ but ‘interrupted’ (Lançon, 2019), that reading is a way to live and survive. That the bourgeois, well-educated man holds on to the canon and the culture. 

It is in writing and reading that self-esteem survives and counters the violence and stupidity.

The period of being outside of the real world, staying in the cocoon that convalescence is, implies a period of fiction in which there is freedom. The patient is the victim but also still the writer and journalist: ‘When I was writing in bed, with three fingers, then five, then seven, with my jawbone full of holes and then reconstituted, with or without the ability to speak, I wasn’t the patient I was describing; I was a man who was revealing that patient by observing him, and who was recounting his story with a good will and pleasure that he hoped to share, I was becoming a fiction. It was reality, it was absurd, and I was free.’ (Lançon, 2019) It is in writing and reading that self-esteem survives and counters the violence and stupidity.


There are various ways to read a literary text and students could be trained more in applying different strategies in different contexts. The point of reading is not to establish the ultimate or final meaning of a text, but to engage in a conversation: why does a text like this one matter to me, how can I entangle, resist, affirm and reconstruct it? Lançon’s account reminds us of the power of fiction in the context of violent attacks that are part of our recent history. In 1989 Salman Rushdie became victim of the fatwa, and Philippe reminds this in a crucial passage in his book in which he accuses his own perpetrators: ‘When Salman Rushdie became the victim of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, the writer V.S Naipaul refused to support him, on the grounds that the fatwa was, after all, only an extreme form of literary criticism … any censorship is indeed an extreme, paranoid form of criticism. The most extreme form could be exercised only by ignorant or illiterate people, that was how things were, and that was exactly what had just happened: we had been the victims of the most efficient censors, those who liquidate everything without having read anything.’ (Lançon, 2019) The charge against the brothers K. is that they censored satire without knowing about the literary culture, about the power of imagination, subversiveness and writing. Their religious fanaticism was built on not being informed, on not ‘having read anything’. 

Philippe holds on to the literary canon, just like Rushdie did in his memoir (Rushdie, 2013), in which ‘Joseph Anton’ is a nickname just as ‘Monsieur Tarbes’ is. As Rushdie writes: ‘He needed, now, to be clear of what he was fighting for. Freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art of which he was privileged to be a practitioner. Also skepticism, irreverence, doubt, satire, comedy, and unholy glee. He would never again flinch from the defense of these things.’ (Remnick, 2023) In August 2022, more than 30 years after the fatwa was called, Rushdie was stabbed on stage in the US by a lone radical Islamist and survived. In February 2023, the publication of his new novel Victory City proves that the writer of literature is not silenced by violence. The defiance of Rushdie, the defiance of Charlie Hebdo are acts we have to celebrate.


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