How Do You Read?

Well? How do you? How do you read a novel versus a tech manual versus a history book or memoir? What about a dense, older novel as compared to a fun I-need-a-brain-break modern book? I’d never thought about it before having to work with someone to teach them how to read for data as compared to skimming to make a page count (so to speak.) It raises an old question again: is reading an unnatural act?

No, not that kind of unnatural act. Sheesh. Yes, I probably should not have phrased it quite that way, given what genres I write. OK, allow me to restate the hypothesis: reading silently is not the default method of taking in information for many humans.

Until very recently, like the last seventy years in the Western World, mass literacy did not exist. Most humans got along with reading a little, writing their names, and doing what little math they needed in their heads. In Colonial times along the East Coast of what became the US, people would read the latest news paper, or pamphlets, or printed sermons aloud for all the people who could not, or preferred not to, read. Ditto Europe. In fact, one argument for and against mass literacy was that it would encourage workers to reach above their stations and get ambitious. If one or two town readers was enough for everyone to know the important news and laws, why have any more? Reading was, in a large part, done aloud. Six hundred years earlier, one of the things that made St. Bernard of Clervaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs so unusual was the he wrote them to be read privately instead of to be read to the monastic community or as homilies.

So reading was also hearing. The majority of humans have used oral transmission of information a lot longer than we’ve been reading. In the Western World, that shifted after 1900, and we are becoming far more visual, at least in theory. At the rate that screen icons are replacing text, I suspect text literacy may fade away. At least, that’s what I think after watching a fast-swiping, thumb tapping student collide with an open locker door. (No one was injured.)

So, to the original questions, when one reads for immersion as compared to information, how does it differ? What about reading for specific information as compared to reading for general knowledge? Some people are masters at using the index to find material, but if a term is slightly different (say “treaty” as compared to “peace” as you sometimes find in older history books), they are lost. You do not want to get immersed in a textbook while trying to get a general sense of a topic (assuming the book is well-written enough that you could get immersed). But you don’t want to read so lightly that you miss vital information, or fail to pick up on connections between ideas and events.

Reading aloud helps some, but that’s kind of a problem if you are sitting in a library or classroom, trying to work quietly. Some people take notes, but other students have never learned that arcane art. Or their handwriting is such that trying to cipher what the notes said, and how they are arranged, is a problem. Not that anyone has ever accused me of illegibility, nooooo. Mom Red calls my handwriting “Carolingian microscule,” and yes, she reads medieval history as a hobby.

T’is a puzzle for someone on the outside trying to work in. I picked up the different kinds and tricks of reading by the time I was in my late teens, and it comes automatically to me. The same is not true for the majority of people, I suspect.

One thought on “How Do You Read?

  1. I seldom have (or had) the problem of a text book well written enough to get immersed in.

    I ‘immersion read’ for pleasure, speed read for overview, or to look for particular information, or if it is something I need to read but don’t enjoy. I don’t like to read aloud, it is way to slow… except on rare occasions when I want to share a particularly humorous line with someone.

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