Kinds of Reading

From Derek Bickerton's Bastard Tongues -- “Most students read passively. They see themselves as vessels waiting to be filled. They have awe and respect for the printed word. I don't. I want to catch the authors out. I assume, correctly, that part of the stuff, maybe most of it, will be wrong. And I'm going to figure out which part it is. Even if you know nothing about a subject you can spot self-contradictions, and if you read two authors on the same topic you can spot regular contradictions. They can't both be right. (They could both be wrong, though.)”

“Most students hit their heads on brick walls. They're given a text to read, and somewhere in Chapter 1 or 2 they bog down completely. But they persevere, oh do they persevere! (That's unless they decide to drop out completely.) They feel if they don't absorb Chapter 2 to its very last syllable, they'll be totally lost when they get to Chapter 3. So they keep slugging away until their eyes glaze, trying to force understanding. Finally they sleep on it and start over again the next day.”

“What I do is skim through the text looking for anything I understand. Sometimes at first it's as little as the introduction and a couple of paragraphs here and there. No matter. I store that in my mind and do something else. Read stuff about the subject that I do understand, stop again the moment it gets to be hard work. Then after a week or two, I come back to the first text, skim it again for anything that makes sense. There will be more this time. I guarantee it. Maybe not much, but a little more will start to make sense. There will be more this time. I guarantee it. Maybe not much, but a little more will start to make sense. Repeat the process. You'll probably find you're getting patches all over the book. Okay, fine. The patches spread like inkblots; eventually they'll link up. Suddenly, what a few weeks before was a trek into impenetrable jungle becomes a stroll through the park.”

“You see, evolution has been programming brains for half a billion years, It has been programming them to sort incoming data and make sense out of it. A life-or-death matter: only those who can do it well survive. The brain doesn't care what kind of data. Whistles and roars on the savanna or words on a printed page – it just sorts, interprets, and soars, whether you're conscious of it or not.”

Some books are most rewarding when ransacked in this way – but obviously we need a different approach for, say, poetry. The word “reading” is used to cover a wide range of different activities. Compare for example the kind of reading Bickerton is talking about with the kind Gary Lutz describes. High literary reading owes a lot to religious reading, where the text is treated as sacred. The difference could have something to do with the two separate reading pathways in the brain distinguished by Stanislas Dehaene.

But there aren’t only two types of reading. Sometimes we read just for plot -- we may be fully aware that the author has bungled the background setting, and that his prose is dead, but still keep turning the pages to see what happens.

And rarely, we experience all these kinds of readerly satisfaction at once, penetrating the zone Nabokov described -- “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.”

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