A friend of mine has multiple names depending on whom he is interacting with: to the Mexicans he has one name, to Americans and Canadians another and to his countrymen he has a third. This is a common phenomenon in a land filled with foreigners who’s names are not always easily pronounced by the native tongue. In my friend’s case, he has a common name easily translated into the usage common for the language spoken.
I make a habit of rereading an email before I send it. I do this mainly to ensure that my meaning is clear, knowing through ample experience that email is a notoriously poor medium for communication. [Never before have I had so many misunderstandings as I have since email’s explosion as a form of communication.] So I take the time to reread and edit what I write in emails in an often-unsuccessful attempt to avoid pissing off my family, friends and acquaintances.
Rereading the email I noticed that although I used the “native” spelling of his name, the spelling that he uses, I still “said” it using my Canadianized version of his name. I did not read what was written, I said what I have come to call him. And it struck me: How often, when we read something, does our interpretation suffer from the effect of our biases, cultural and otherwise? (I realize this is not exactly a groundbreaking concept, but it became very glaringly apparent and tangible for the case in point.)
Using email again as an example, it is clear that often times if someone is in a pissy mood or you’ve had disagreements with them previously, they approach your messages with a certain bias that leads them to read them with certain expectations and, well, at times a real chip on their shoulder. The chances of them misinterpreting your message in this case is, I would venture, incredibly high – higher yet if it addresses a topic for which a certain disagreement already exists.
Similarly, in the case of a novel or essay, the subject matter may trigger memories or belief-systems that are loaded with emotions, positive or otherwise. Is it even conceivable to read something from a purely objective standpoint? How do our biases affect our ability to understand and, perhaps more importantly to the author, appreciate what the author is trying to share?
I once picked up Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and could not get into it, did not like it and was mystified by the hype surrounding it expressed by my fellow university students (many of whom were in the Fine Arts). I therefore attributed my distaste for it to a scientifically stunted brain, to some lack or artistic handicap I surely possessed. A year or so later, under different circumstances, I picked the book up again, curious to see if I might find some shimmer of the beauty it was attributed that years earlier I could not see.
Low and behold, I could not put it back down. It spoke to me like nothing I’d read before. It was hauntingly beautiful, the most unique literature I’d ever read. I devoured it, read it non-stop, my head buried as I bumped into people in hallways moving from one room to the next, and then leaning against the counter in the lab where I pretended to be “working.”
In Boot Hill there are over 400 graves. It takes
the space of 7 acres. There is an elaborate gate
but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles
like branches of a tree among the gravestones.
300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently
200 by guns, over 50 by knives
some were pushed under trains —a popular
and overlooked form of murder in the west.
Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fights
at least 10 killed in barbed wire.
In Boot Hill there are only 2 graves that belong to women
and they are the only known suicides in that graveyard.
What had happened in the intervening months to change my ability to be touched by this work of literature is still beyond my comprehension. But there is a divinity in it, something mystical and other-worldly, something to do with voices we can only hear when the time is right. And I believe similarly that my previous inability to appreciate it must have something to do with a bias, or perhaps closedness is the better word (made up or not). A writer’s work is informed, we presume, by their experiences and their interpretations of these. Our work as reader is similarly enlightened (my choice of word is not at all accidental), lending a inherent bias to our interpretation of everything we read, but may further be influenced or, dare I say, stunted by the degree to which we can remain open to the message contained therein.