Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Guess what reading is

This is reading. You've just done it. You've read. You're still reading and the odds are you will continue to read till the end of this sentence at least. We do it every day. We look at this word, then that one and then the next. Or block of words. Most people, it seems, read a whole chunk at a time because the meaning of words is so often dependent on context. But that's only a part of it.

Here's a clever man's definition of reading:

Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. It involves an interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. The ability to anticipate that which has not been seen, of course, is vital in reading, just as the ability to anticipate what has not yet been heard is vital in listening. - Kenneth Goodman in Journal of the Reading Specialist (1967)

A not so clever-sounding – but far more accessible – article can be found at Reading Rockets.

In my teens, I thought I wanted to be a composer. I'd still like to be a composer or a painter. Surely one of them has got to be easier than being a writer. The thing about being a composer is that you compose for something, a piano or a violin or a group of hands clapping and each of the aforementioned musical instruments has its limitations. Every modern piano has 88 keys (seven octaves plus a minor third) and that is your lot. Sure you can arrange for nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber to be lodged between and entwined around the strings but there are limits. Then there is the performer. John Ogden or David Helfgott is going to get more out of a piano than your Aunt Sadie down the pub of a Friday night and because of this many composers write specifically with a certain performer in mind because they know they can push the boundaries with them.

You, gentle reader, are my performer-instrument. The problem is I don't know you from Adam. I don't know your abilities or willingness to commit to this piece of writing. Are you a skimmer or a close reader? If I stick in a big word, will you look it up or trip over it? Or what about l'étrangère expression? (That would be 'a foreign phrase' in French). So what do I do, write in nice, short internet-friendly sentences? Should I treat you like a nine-year old? That's what some reports say the average reading age is in Britain.

I asked the question recently if the verb 'to savour' has become defunct. Think of it in terms of food: there are ads on the TV all the time for food stores like Iceland – two curries for a quid (you get the idea) – and there are kids out there whose mothers never bake and the only cooking they do is reheating. It's all they know.

Eating to live and reading because you're made to are not poles apart but decent food and good reading are both an acquired taste; people need wee tasters here and there, like they do in supermarkets. Step up flash fiction.

The internet is built around the fast food mentality, little gobbets of information that don't take much getting down, but the thing is, the important thing is, that this is where the readers of the future are, looking to be entertained and it is still a word-centric environment.

I read an article recently, Are You Writing with Clarity? which makes some good points about writing for today's readers but there is a danger. If we reduce our writing to simply conveying information there is a very good chance our readers will lose out on the experience.

Have a look at Book-a-Minute Classics. By the way, the Of Mice and Men summary is wrong. The dog belonged to Candy not Lennie and it was Carlson that shot him. I won't tell you who George shot in case you've not read the book. But that's what you get when you try and cut to the chase.

I used to have a wife who was a voracious reader and very kindly would summarise all her books for me which is why I know far more about Erma Bombeck that a man my age ought to. (Actually I've forgotten most of it but you get my drift). It's like having someone pre-chew your food for you.

Reading is more than getting the answer to a puzzle. It is working out the answers for yourself and, unlike a sum where there is only one right answer, every single book ever written has the potential to provide many different answers. As you change, as you grow and your life experiences expand, so do the levels at which you can appreciate good writing. Some of the very best writing raises questions that it leaves the readers to answer for themselves.

The thing is, the really annoying thing is, that the people I want to get that message are they very people who would never read an article like this. I'm preaching to the choir. Spread the word.


Jobove - Reus said...

very good blog, congratulations
regard from Catalonia Spain
thank you

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for the comment. I've run into your site before. The photographs of world libraries are magnificent.

Conda Douglas said...

With novels that I'm enjoying, Jim, I'm a close reader. Even a re-reader. I love to savor each word, sentence, paragraph. If I start skimming--bad news.

Another great, interesting post!

Carma Dutra said...

Hi Jim, your post is so timely. The news of the new Kindle electronic reader has been raising questions about the fate of books and how people read.

When a new word appears in a book or publication, I usually don't look it up until later. However, what often happens is I understand the meaning because of the content of the piece, paragraph, etc that I am reading. So either way I am learning.

Regarding foreign words, I just skip over them unless they are critical to the meaning of the story.

Beth said...

Good post, Jim. I read far too fast for my own good and always have. When reading literature I force myself to slow down, and of course with poetry it's essential. As an inveterate skimmer and guesser, I'd be horrified if people read my words that way, and think of that sometimes while I'm writing...

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