[L]iterature is not an aesthetic experience but practical help for being human. – The Reader Organisation
There are three main theories concerning how we read, The Traditional Approach, Cognitive Reading Theory and the Metacognitive View. The first is the simplest:
Reading equals decoding therefore any problems in decoding are a result of problems in encoding.
This theory requires a reader to be a passive participant who simply receives information while an active text makes itself and its meanings known to them.
That’s an easy enough one to disprove. This is because writing isn’t maths. In maths 1 + 1 = 2 and no one would argue with you but the English expression “You and I are one” isn’t so simple:
I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. – John 17:21
True love leave no traces
If you and I are one
It’s lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun.
(from ‘True Love Leaves No Traces’ – Leonard Cohen)
You say, this is mine and that is thine. What is the use of doing any spiritual practice unless you give up the feelings of mine and thine? Get rid of the narrow feelings of mine and thine and realise that you and I are one. – from Bhagawan’s Divine Discourse in Sai Kulwant Hall, Prasanthi Nilayam on 18th May 2010
Hi, nice to meet you.
You and I are one in the same.
Goodbye, I can see you walk until you're running away.
The moon glows and the sun shows
what you're going to say.
(from ‘Hi’ – Army’s Leaning)
Now you and I are one serious illness away from bankruptcy. We may not know it, but if you get a serious illness, you lose your job because you can’t work. You lose your job, you lose your health care. – An interview with Sen. John Marty, Politics in Minnesota, 23rd July 2009
You get the idea: one mind, one body, one purpose, one kind. Context is everything. But let’s face it, how many of us are reading the words “you and I are one” for the first time here? We already have a pretty good idea what it could mean.
Of course if a mathematician wanted to he could prove that 1 + 1 = 1 too:
a = 1
b = 1
a = b
a2 = b2
a2 - b2 = 0
(a-b)(a+b) = 0
(a-b)(a+b)/(a-b) = 0/(a-b)
1(a+b) = 0
(a+b) = 0
1 + 1 = 0
2 = 0
1 = 0
1 + 1 = 1
(For a full explanation of this see the annotated version here.)
The traditional view relies on the fact that words mean what they say. To use a mathematical analogy though, words are variables and not constants. We use the four letters l, o, v and e to stand in for a wide variety of feelings: romantic love, brotherly affection, national allegiance, familial feeling and quite often as a hyperbole – let’s be serious, no one really loves strawberry yoghurt.
In the traditional view we start with the words and work up to meaning. The linguist Dr David Nunan even refers to this process as the “bottom-up” view of reading.
The cognitive view starts off with the reader first of all who actively constructs meaning as opposed to merely extracting meaning. The words are just a part of what’s needed. The reader’s personal experiences and knowledge are also factors in this equation and since they are unique then the resultant meaning will also be unique. The danger here is that we read into a text.
Man: I love you.
Woman: I love you too.
Man: No, you don’t understand. I love you.
Woman: Oh, I see.
The woman heard the words and interpreted them as, “I have affection for you,” and that might have been an appropriate response based on her evaluation of their relationship up to that point. But the man used the selfsame words to say that his feelings have moved beyond affection. He’s saying, “I want to have sex with you,” isn’t he? Or is he?
Woman: You mean you want to sleep with me?
Man: Oh, no. Nothing like that.
Woman: Oh, I see.
Of course he does want to have sex with her but he’s read into her response that she doesn’t and so backtracks like crazy. Then when she says, “Oh, I see,” the second time what she’s saying is, “No, I don’t see.”
Ken Goodman’s view of reading is that it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, a process in which readers sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, make new hypotheses, and so forth, all of which involves a constant toing and froing between long- and short-term memory. Here, the reader rather than the text is at the heart of the reading process.
Metacognition, on the other hand, involves thinking about what one is doing while reading. Reading is not an end in itself. It’s reading with a purpose and it involves three steps:
- Preparing to read
- Constructing meaning while reading
- Reviewing and reflecting on what has been read
You might think of it as serious reading. An athlete will warm up before exercise but we readers, reckless devils that we are, simply pick up a book and begin. Most researchers seem to agree that metacognition develops, as a person gets older because this requires an ability to stand back and observe oneself.
Basically there are four kinds of reading:
- Skimming: Reading rapidly for the main points
- Scanning: Reading rapidly to find a specific piece of information
- Extensive reading: Reading a longer text, often for pleasure with emphasis on overall meaning
- Intensive reading: Reading a short text for detailed information
When you read you are looking to comprehend what you’re reading. Understanding the words does not equal comprehension. Comprehension depends on the reader's prior knowledge and reading strategies which I’ll come back to. Comprehension does not necessarily lead to learning – at least, not to learning of a meaningful, useful kind. To comprehend a text we need to:
- Engage with the text
- Connect with the text
- Evaluate the text
- Reflect upon the text and your own responses to it
And we can do all that and still forget what we’ve read.
How many people can remember the actual words of books they read two years ago? As Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s, people do not ordinarily remember much of the exact information they read. (See my previous article Fighting ghosties.) Instead, they learn the "gist" of it. They pick and choose. They use selected portions of the information to address issues important to them.
What about what you read two minutes ago? Think about it. At the start of this post I included 5 quotes that included a specific phrase. Without scrolling back try to answer the following:
- What was that phrase?
- What was the politician’s name?
- What was the songwriter’s name?
- What Bible verse did I quote?
- What was the last quote about?
- What was the band’s name?
- What were the titles of the two songs?
I wrote the damn article and I reckon I managed 2 of the 8 answers. And the reason for this is that I didn’t read them to remember them. I read them to make sure I had a selection that made the point I was trying to make and the odds are you got that point and saw no reason to retain additional data. It’s like a map scribbled on a scrap of paper – when you’ve arrived where you’re going why hang onto it?
But is that any way to read a novel? Novels are all about the journey, not so much the destination, aren’t they?
I mentioned reading strategies earlier. What exactly is a reading strategy? Obviously it’s a way of reading and by that I don’t mean lounging in a chair or propped up in bed although our physical position when reading would strictly also be a part of any strategy.
If you read with intent you’re much more likely to get something out of what you’ve read. These days I read most books with the intention of writing a review of them. To that effect I’ve adopted the following reading strategy:
- I find out a little about the book before I begin, at least reading the press release
- I take notes as I write
- I read in manageable chunks (40-50 pages) at a time
- I don’t read if I’m tired
- I read in a well-lit place, generally my leather chair in my office
- I think about what I’ve read in between sessions
- I talk about what I’m reading with my wife
- I research the author and often the subject and see what other reviewers have had to say
- I write my review
- I respond to comments on the review
- I pretty much forget everything I’ve read and written and get on with something else
I’m being partly facetious with that last bullet point, but the simple fact is that after all that I find that when called upon to talk about a book I’ve read only a few weeks beforehand I often only have a very sketchy idea what it was about. And I suspect many people are like that. Reading is something that you enjoy while you are doing it. It is temporal; transitory. It’s like looking out of a train window. The words flit past. You’ve no sooner read one and then there’s another one, so many that you stop trying to read individual words and your eyes gobble them down in chunks: glub, glub, glub. No time to chew, or taste. Just swallow and take another bite.
How long does it take to remember then?
I think that’s the wrong question. We should be asking: How much do you want to remember? I don’t think most of us want to enough. We take reading for granted just like we take eating for granted. Once I got into my late forties and my blood pressure and weight started climbing I began to realise that there was a science to eating. As a kid I ate what I wanted when I wanted and burned off any excess with ease. My weight hardly ever varied. Now I look at a hot cross bun and I think, 200 calories, mostly carbohydrates. I’ve had to change my whole attitude towards eating and I’m thinking that I need to modify my attitude towards reading too because the words are running right through me and doing me very little good. Because, seriously, what is the point of reading if you’re going to forget it all?
What we have to understand is that memories are physical. We think of them in abstract terms but they are housed in a physical container: you – ergo they are physical. That doesn’t mean you can poke your finger in your ear and scratch the 25th of May 1963 but that doesn’t stop the fact that if you cut a certain chunks out of someone’s head (primarily the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, and perirhinal cortex) you will be giving them a radical memory-ectomy. Long-term memory, unlike short-term memory, is dependent upon the construction of new proteins.
If a reading strategy can be compared to an exercise regime then what’s the reading equivalent of a good, balanced diet?
Actually it’s a good, balanced diet. A balanced diet with protein, good fats and complex carbohydrates can balance the activity in the temporal lobes of the brain. Eating protein at every meal can help stabilize blood sugar levels and help prevent the brain fog that sometimes happens after high carbohydrate or high sugar meals. Omega-3 fatty acids are a major component of the gray matter of the brain and can also improve brain activity. Antioxidants in the diet also can improve memory by decreasing the free radical damage that can occur with age. Supplements that support memory include antioxidants such as alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin E and vitamin C. Ginkgo biloba is an herb that enhances circulation in the brain, which can improve memory and concentration.
Most of what’s in that last paragraph I don’t understand. I cut and pasted it from an article on The Diet Channel here. But I have the gist of it. And I’m working on it. Plus I have a wife who does understand it.
The bottom line is that the more you understand what you’re doing the better you will be at it. That goes for eating, reading, driving a car – everything. Because there are rules for everything. When you eat you need time to digest what you’ve eaten and the same goes for reading. You need to give yourself time to process what you’ve read. Unfortunately unlike digestion that kind of thinking doesn’t take place automatically. You have to actively go over in your head (chew over) what you’ve read.
You are what you eat.
You are what you read.
You are not what you drive but people usually read into what your drive, add 2 and 2 and get 5.