The Hermes 2014 seminar at the University of Helsinki invites participants to reflect on the various facets and strategies of reading in the context of the cultural and technological transformations of our time.

It is a truism that literature does not exist unless there is someone who reads it. We are used to think of reading as a meeting of text and reader. We are familiar with debates about which of the two dominate this encounter: do the embedded reception structures, conceptualized as, for example, the distinction between authorial and narrative audiences guide the reader’s response? Or is reading primarily steered by our reading strategies that are institutionally formed? New dimensions were added to this debate when we realized that reading is not simply a matter of relating content to form, but that it responds to a text’s materiality. The concrete forms of books affect our reading.

Further, reading has a physical side, too; this dimension was better known in earlier times when reading aloud was a common practice. In Karin Littau’s words, reading brings together two bodies, “one made of paper and ink, the other of flesh and blood.” The growing awareness of the physicality of reading involves a heightened perception of the effects of reading. Besides whetting our imaginations and challenging our intellect, reading affects our emotions. It supplies not only occasions for interpretation but also opportunities for feeling. Reading may excite us, make us weep, make us angry and anxious, or soothe us. An important realization garnered from discussions and debates about reading concerns the fact that reading is historically variable and physically as well as emotionally conditioned.

While these familiar questions are still being examined, a host of new issues has emerged, thanks to changing reading habits and environments. New technologies have created new platforms on which to read: we have desktops, laptops, e-readers (Kindle), tablets (iPad), and handheld devices (phones, iPod Touch). These devices raise questions about their effects. Is reading on an electronic platform different from reading a hard copy? Does it require a new reading strategy? One solution has been to distinguish between “deep” and “quick” reading, strategies that consider the specific goals of reading. Others have promoted an expanded notion of reading, one that takes as its starting point the fact that literature, films, television programs, and songs can all be downloaded from the same sites and played on the same device.

Reading becomes a new kind of activity when it is combined with intermediality – with viewing and listening. Still others have called for an examination of what they call amateur reading; that is, reading for the love of literature, yet not for purposes of academic study. Harold Bloom reminds us that the fundamental goal of reading is the development of the self. In his view, reading is the most healing of pleasures because the mind is expanded, not anesthetized. For her part, Rita Felski observes that literary theory offers tools for exploring everyday readers’ experience, yet it has difficulties recognizing that literature may be valued for different, even incommensurable reasons.

Issues to be discussed might include, but are not restricted to:

Helsinki, June 8 to June 13, 2014
Annual International Post-Graduate Seminar
in collaboration with the universities united in the HERMES-network

Fees for the 2014 seminar in Helsinki will be 350 euros.