In his essay “Reading Oneself,” the writer and teacher Sven Birkerts describes the experience of encountering a long-forgotten page of his own prose. As Birkerts tells the story, he agreed to read the book manuscript of a student whom he had taught many years before. When his former student arrived at their meeting, she brought both her manuscript and Birkerts’ written evaluation of her work, which she had saved from her days in his course. Typed on the Selectric II he was using at the time, Birkerts’ prose seemed foreign to its author:
And suddenly there’s this feeling, I’ve had it before—more and more in recent years. I am reading something I’ve written and I not only don’t recognize the sentences—they’ve gone from me—I also don’t quite map to the mind that produced them. It’s very much like catching your shopwindow reflection for a split second before you realize it’s you. Almost always, the shock is negative. I look like that? With these sentences it’s the opposite. My eyes catch sight of what my hand did. Reading, I actually admire the images, the figures of speech, the confidence of the rhythm. Not the rhythm I would write in now. But I feel it as distinct.
For Birkerts this encounter with his younger self was comparable to contemplating an old photograph. “The looking,” he observes, “is mainly about taking in the differences.”* (more…)