Book Review: Timo Rouget: “Filmische Leseszenen. Ausdruck und Wahrnehmung ästhetischer Erfahrung”, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2021

reviewed by network member Ute Schneider (JGU Mainz)

Timo Rouget: Filmische Leseszenen. Ausdruck und Wahrnehmung ästhetischer Erfahrung. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter 2021 (Communicatio. Kultur – Text – Medium. 52); 487 pages. ISBN 978-3-11-0722678-7; 109.95 Euro. Link to book on publisher website.

One cannot see reading. The reading process remains hidden from viewers of visual media. Nevertheless, reading scenes are a traditional motif in the visual arts, in photography, and also in film. While reading scenes and reading situations in painting and, to a somewhat lesser extent, also in photography are by now used quite frequently as sources in various scholarly contexts and are critically assessed in terms of their significance, reading scenes in film have rarely been the subject of scholarly research.[1] It is, therefore, very welcome that this desideratum has finally been taken up.

book cover

Timo Rouget explores three questions in his dissertation: How is literary-aesthetic reading representable in film? What functions do cinematic reading scenes fulfil? To what extent can a scene itself trigger an aesthetic experience in the audience? (p. 7) In his analysis, Rouget concentrates on literary-aesthetic reading scenes in which a “character can be seen receiving a book in a way that can be classified as literary-aesthetic”. (p. 21) With the focus on reading books, bypassing other reading media, he follows what can already be called the classical concept of reading, which defines reading as literary reading in books. His sources consist of popular or “reasonably well-known” (p. 23) feature films or fictional series from Western Europe and the USA; only a few nations are represented.

Rouget lays out his work in three parts. First, he lays the foundation for his analysis primarily via theoretical considerations, by positioning literary-aesthetic reading and aesthetic experience in the context of film phenomenology. This is followed by a focus on four criteria for a literary-aesthetic reading scene. After careful explication of these four continuing operational concepts (reading object, reading subject, reading situation, reading communication, pp. 83-95), they are examined in terms of their role and function in the film. Rouget quite rightly points out that the reading location is a neglected criterion in reading scenes because the location can provide information about the reading experience as well as the reading motivation.

This clarification of the research design is followed by an analysis of film scenes by presenting and interpreting the different staging possibilities in film, for example, films (including silent films) that place the reading object, i.e. the book, at the centre of visibility. Rouget first explores cinematic case studies and then makes intermedial references to the literary text. He shows that the indwelling character of a literary-aesthetic reading scene (chapter 5.4) only comes into effect when “ideal” spectators are assumed to have prior knowledge of the text. Nevertheless, the gratification for the watching audience can also consist in the reading stimulus of an unknown text. After the reading object, the staging of the reading subject is examined, focusing here on the symbolic power of reading books to characterise people in the film and endow them with certain qualities, such as intelligence or sensuality. The reading situation as a further category of analysis looks at the reading place, the environment and the reading atmosphere, as well as the reading attitude of the subject. It also becomes clear that films follow the iconography of reading in painting. This has an orientating function for cinematic reading locations and attitudes (cf. p. 170). Finally, reading communication becomes the object of analysis, referring both to texts spoken off-screen and to follow-up communication about what is read in the film. The constituents and central functions of the reading scenes that comprise this chapter of the dissertation are described in detail in their cinematic realisation (camera work, focusing, apertures, etc.) and thereby underpin the arguments made.

Another broad thematic area is formed by the topoi of literary-aesthetic reading, which, distinct from the intertextual reference functions of the reading object, constitute a “system reference” (p. 215) since the reading behaviour of characters has the function of providing information about these characters and expressing the aesthetic experience of the subject. The second major thematic issue addressed is the erotic and/or romantic reading scene long handed down in literature and painting. Rouget recognises another function of reading scenes in medial self-reflection, understood as “procedures of self-reference or re-reference with which a medium draws attention to its own fictionality and mediality” (p. 278). This is the case, for example, when a character reads a novel in which the protagonists find themselves in a dilemma comparable to their own (p. 283). The lifeworld significance of reading is taken up in chapter 12: questions of socialisation, coping with everyday life, participation in social life as well as individual identity work in the course of life provide the by no means exhaustive list of keywords here. Rouget presents reading, or a certain reading material, as an existential companion in life using the example of children’s reading. (The classic example is the film adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel The Never-Ending Story). The journey through reading scenes in film is concluded with a look at special film genres such as science fiction or horror. And finally, the work is dedicated to the genuine representations of literary-aesthetic reading using the examples of Nocturnal Animals, Prospero’s Books and Edgar Reitz’s Die andere Heimat – Chronik einer Sehnsucht (The Other Homeland – Chronicle of a Longing) to substantiate the initial consideration that film makes the aesthetic reading experience comprehensible and tangible for the viewer. In the conclusion, Rouget emphasises the consistently positive (with a few exceptions) connotations of reading in the films discussed, which do not present the text, “but the experience of the character receiving the text” (p. 433). Four indexes conclude the volume: subject index, personal index, film index, and an index of the texts read in the films discussed.

Rouget has analytically separated different levels of cinematic reading scenes and categorised and assigned them accordingly. The source-oriented work is committed to both media studies and reading research and can be located interdisciplinarily. However, in the cinematic realisation of reading behaviour, reading motivation and reading enjoyment of film characters, the analytically separated categories often flow together, so that the separation made here illuminates only the most obvious iconographic references and symbols in each case. Strictly focused on the important guiding questions concerning the cinematic realisation of the medial practice of reading, it is a merit of this dissertation to make clear the parallels, similarities, and demarcations of film representations to other medial stagings such as painting or photography. This work is convincing due to its consistent wealth of material, which is successfully dissected in the—in each case appropriate—theoretical approach. This work closes a research gap.

[1] Peter Friedrich makes a first start on this topic: “Repräsentationen des Lesens in Literatur, Kunst, Film und Fernsehen” [Representations of Reading in Literature, Art, Film and Television]. In: Alexander Honold and Rolf Parr (eds.): Grundthemen der Literaturwissenschaft: Lesen. Berlin/Boston 2018, pp. 397-422; see further references there as well.


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