Small World by David Lodge

“…To understand a message is to decode it.  Language is a code.  But every decoding is another encoding.  If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you.  But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were, deviantly, to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they mean to you…time has moved on since you opened your mouth to speak, the molecules in your body have changed, what you intended to say has been superseded by what you did say, and that has already become part of your personal history, imperfectly remembered.  Conversation is like playing tennis with a ball made of Krazy Putty that keeps coming back over the net in a different shape. 

Reading, of course, is different to conversation…the tennis analogy will not do for the activity of reading — it is not a to-and-fro process, but an endless, tantalising leading on, a flirtation without consummation, or if there is consummation, it is solitary, masturbatory. [Here the audience grew restive.] The reader plays with himself as the text plays upon him, plays upon his curiosity, desire, as a striptease dancer plays upon her audience’s curiosity and desire…”

Small World by David Lodge, published by Penguin Books in 1984, ISBN: 0140072659

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