Reading is a brave thing to do. We must sally forth into the unknown imaginative world. We must suspend our disbelief. We must agree to follow the rules of the text. We often end up living in a space of almost understanding.
I want to take a moment to honor the almost. We tend to race past this; it’s not always comfortable to entertain uncertainty. But before the analysis phase is the inarticulated-response phase, where we’ve had an experience but haven’t tried to put language to it yet. (A good comparison might be the point when you walk out of a movie and someone asks, “What did you think?” Maybe you hesitate to reply because you are still sorting through the aftereffects of image and sound, the meanderings of plot, the power of elicited emotions, etc.) There’s something lovely about being immersed in the ambiguities of the artistic experience, about not having to categorize everything. Yet the opportunity to remain there, pondering, is often elusive. We humans tend to reach for order and closure.
Sometimes the piece of art itself encourages this sense of in-between-ness. Take, for example, “This is a Photograph of Me” by the amazing Margaret Atwood. At first, it simply seems to describe a blurry photograph of a lake scene. But then we are informed that the picture “was taken / the day after I drowned,” and we are invited to look more closely for the speaker beneath the surface of the lake. Suddenly what seems to be a flat photograph takes on complex depth and raises multiple questions. It’s a fascinating and haunting poem: we are never given all the answers, but we do know the voice has something to tell us about seeing differently. It makes us actively engage.
And now for the connection to our topic of choice around here: that same sense of almost understanding is the desired mode when we read mysteries. We want to sustain that place of suspension. Yes, we expect a solution to be offered eventually, of course, but upfront? No thanks. We want to know something has been done, but not why or by whom. Throughout the rest of the text, we want the chance to piece things together, entertain various scenarios, puzzle things out…almost seeing the solution (but not quite, or our fun is over). We choose to “dwell in possibility.”*
*Hat tip to Emily Dickinson for writing that perfect phrase, even though you definitely were not talking about mysteries.