Here is the passage:
“Ever since I was first read to, then started reading myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. Is isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice.”
As you read that (silently to yourself, I would guess), didn’t you become self-conscious about whether or not you “heard” that “voice” she is describing? Did you hear it?
She goes on to talk about how this capacity to hear the “voice of the story or the poem itself” or “reader-voice” or whatever you want to call it may well be tied to her being a writer. Welty lived a long, long life (90-plus years) and wrote many novels and stories, and so perhaps was one of those people who is better equipped than most of us to “hear” what a book might be saying.
This passage gets excerpted and anthologized sometimes under the title “Listening.” I see all sorts of possible ways of interpreting this passage, but they all tend to come back to the simple notion of paying attention while you read -- of really listening to what the author is trying to say in a way that allows the book to “speak” to you in some fashion.
It is certainly possible to read without “listening.” I know sometimes I do it, and thus unlike Welty there have been many, many lines I have read in my life that I didn’t “hear.” I might sometimes be able to blame the author -- if the book isn’t interesting or well-written, I may well drift away, for sure. But then there are times when I’m just distracted, and no matter how good the quality of writing or insight, that “reader-voice” is mostly silent.
That one can draw an analogy here with what goes on at the poker table should be obvious to anyone who has read thus far, I’d think. Anyone who has been listening, anyway.
Some of us listen all the time at the table. Some of us can only do so now and then. And some of us don’t ever listen. That Full Tilt Poker commercial with Jennifer Harman -- you’ve seen it, the “Speak to me, buddy” one -- kind of dramatizes what we’re talking about here, I think. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
As the commercial demonstrates, by “listening” we ain’t strictly talking about what we physically hear. There is an inward voice -- the voice of the hand, I suppose -- which we want to hear. You pay attention and your attention pays you.
Hey, listen up: Have a good weekend, everybody!