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

Thursday, 30 September 2010

You are what you read


[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.)

we2mainThe 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.”

hypothesis Ken Goodman’s view of reading is that it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”[1], 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?

reading-in-bed 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 hot_cross_bun 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.



The War Against Reading

Critical Reading

Reading Theory

Schema Theory


[1] Ken Goodman, Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game


Art Durkee said...

The fact that most fiction doesn't stick in the memory may have to do with memory, but it also has to do with the memorability and quality of what's been read. I find in fact that books I read that really pulled me in I can remember quite well. For example, I just watched the movie "Mistress of Spices" on TV, and I remembered reading the book several years ago that it was based on.

Granted, I'm not doing a lot of reading for the purposes of reviewing; I tend to write reviews of things I read because I wanted to read them, and share my appreciation for them.

So I have to say, reviews or no, one reason a lot of fiction doesn't stick me with me very long these days is that it's not very good. It generates no desire to re-read it later, either. Which for me, at least, is a test of its quality.

But then I don't read many new novels anymore. Creative non-fiction is more attractive to me. And I read a lot of poetry. (The same criteria are in play about whether I want to re-read it later.)

Scattercat said...

Ahahahaha, welcome to my curriculum for the years I was a teacher. (Reading and Language Arts.)

'S fun stuff, innit? It gets less fun when you spend a year trying to trick 13-year-olds into understanding it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never been drawn to non-fiction, Art. I have textbooks, of course, but I don’t sit and read them cover to cover. I research whatever is of interest to me at the time and leave the rest for later for never, whatever comes first. I have the same problems with these though. When I’m working on an article I can keep the stuff in my head but even a few days later it all starts to slip away. I wrote this article a couple of months ago and when I went to post it I found could remember next to nothing about it. I’m sure if I sat down to work on a similar article now it would start to come back to me or at least it would ring bells when I read stuff I’d read before. My gut feeling is that it’s just the pure onslaught of information. It never ends. We gobble, swallow but never give ourselves time to digest things properly before something else appears on our plates going, “Eat me! Eat me now before I get cold.”

And, Scattercat, yep, been there, one lesson ahead of the class. At least I was dealing with adults. They were just glad to have a guy there who was willing to teach them. When I was about thirteen we did have a student teacher for a day, a guy who looked like Ginsberg and tried to introduce us to Ferlinghetti. We ended up giving him the silent treatment and just watched him squirm something our regular teacher would never have let us get away with. It takes a brave person to be a secondary school teacher.

Anonymous said...

You've excelled yourself with this one, Jim. A distinct Strike One against those who claim that electronic discourse tends to debase language and communication. This meditation draws the worlds of treeware and on-screen reading together and does it for those of for whom each territory serves the other.

I love the Laing-ian Man/Woman dialogue. Straight out of the massively neglected 'Knots' (which, alongside R.D. Laing's more contentious works, has gone down the plughole as baby with bathwater).

Now that I've finished with teaching and the constant extrinsically-based reading I had to do for the job, by and large, I read for complete absorption into narrative and character. So I move from one carefully selected novel or biography to another with never a break between each book.

This is an active process: for me the 'getting of wisdom' is best managed through an experience of the lives and times of others and I will select a book on the basis of what data I have in place already. So in that sense the approach is cognitive in that I'm reading the propositions of the novel off against what I think I know already.

However, since I'm seeking constantly to challenge my suppositions and push the boundaries, there is a metacognitive element in play as well and a good read will involve me in extensive extrapolation beyond the narrative.

Thanks once again for the stimulus, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

I loved Knots when I first read it, Dick in fact my poem ‘Cathexis (in memoriam RDL)’ – page 35 of This Is Not About What You Think – is in Laing’s memory.

When my father retired he said one of his biggest regrets was the fact that he had lost his sight – glaucoma, and his sight was quite far gone before it was caught – and so he wasn’t able to do what he never had time to do when he was working, sit and read. We tried to get him to get into audio books but the kind of books he was interested in – non-fiction mainly – aren’t the kind they make audio books of. Make the most of your time.

Glad you found the post stimulating.

Anonymous said...

Jim - this is wonderful. It's a real standout even among all the great essays you've done.

Starting with the tangents. . . my first experience with Knots was a recording of it by the band Gentle Giant - I was not so well read as a young man but my ears did get around some. I had wondered who RDL was in your book - and now I know. I was reading your collection just again this morning. I tend to do that with poetry books - I always read the first poem first. It has to be what the poet intended = but then I read the rest of the poems randomly over the course of time. Today's read was fantastic. There are so many wonderful works in there.

I loved that you talk about what you're reading with your wife. . . what a nice, nice thing to do. I may be wrong, but I think it shows.

And the hidden error in 1 + 1 = 0 is a wonderful bit of illusion.

Dave King said...

Fascinating post. Most of it applies, I would guess, to all language activity. I.e. to speech also. Indeed, to most perceptual activities. Much depends on why you are reading the text, listening to the lecture, watching the film etc. I think I have blogged somewhere about the video of a chameleon we were asked to watch back in my student days. It was absorbing to see it change colour as it went after its prey and the way the tongue flew out an incredible distance to catch the fly. Then we were asked to describe how it moved. No one had watched that. We saw it through again and obtained a completely different overall impression of the creature.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you’re enjoying the collection, Koe. Yes, I was quite bowled over by Knots when I first read it. I’m afraid even in Scotland Laing’s not so well known any more. The book’s yours to read any way you like but you should try sitting and reading it once at least from beginning through to the end. It’s always bothered me that you can’t read a book of poetry like a novel but by arranging the poems moving from childhood to old age I’ve hoped to achieve that here.

As for discussing what I’m reading with Carrie, I use her as a sounding board most of the time before I sit down and write my reviews. It helps to get my thoughts in focus. Often I explain far more than ends up in the review especially if I think there’s no chance that she’ll read the book so she never reads the reviews fresh but that’s okay because she’s really only proofreading them anyway.

And, Dave, yes, good point. I find that with films. You really need to watch most films more than once to appreciate them. Even some TV shows. It’s amazing how much we miss the first time round.

Gwil W said...

For me the reading of fiction takes place on two levels simultaenously - there's the pure joy of well written words, I love to see words used in novel and unusual ways (for example) - and there's the unfolding story which appears, if I'm enjoying the book, as a sort of film running along in my head. I can't always remember what or where I've read up to exactly, but when I pick up the book and commence to read from where I left off, even after a couple of weeks, the story-so-far comes back to me after I've read three or four lines. There are books, as Art Durkee points out, that stay and don't stick in the memory. For me those that stick in the memory are those where image is strong - Coetzee's 'The Heart of the Country', Hesse's 'Narcissus and Goldmund', Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'.
Congratulations on another memorable and thought-provoking piece, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

Agreed, Gwilym, but I think that applies to everything, we remember images far more easily than we do words, all of us. It’s like the book I’ve just reviewed, The Little Girl who was too Fond of Matches, the language is fascinating, completely unique, but I can’t remember any bits of dialogue off the top of my head. What I can remember – and quite vividly at that – is the story in pictures which is unusual for me because I tend to avoid descriptions in my own writing.

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