“At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat — reading.”– Stanislas Dehaene
“[R]eading does not begin or end when eyes apprehend the words on the page, but long before that and indeed long after it.”– Michael Burke
Last week I sketched out a too-brief examination of the basic cognitive processes of reading. This week I want to elaborate on that, and start filling in the picture of how we read. As fascinating as those processes are (and there is certainly more to discuss about them), in the end they are only one aspect of the practice of reading. And, while they demonstrate how we read, they only hint at why and what we read. Reading is a doubly amazing activity because it is not only an unforeseen adaptation that changed how humanity lives, it has an enduring power and utility garnered from the puzzles and connections it creates and reveals. As Oliver Sacks has noted, “Writing, a cultural tool, has evolved to make use of the inferotemporal neurons’ preference for certain shapes” and the process of reading functions in dialogue with that retooling of function. I think that “evolved” is a somewhat loaded term, but the fact that writing and reading developed culturally rather than biologically has to be kept in mind, so that we do not lose sight of the innovative core of these practices and the ways in which they have been transformed over their history.
Many books have been written about that history, but I want to briefly touch on the points that seem most relevant to discussing the reading of fiction and fantastika. What began as a mnemonic aid has become a practice that can shift us from the world around us into one unfolding in our heads by giving our predilections for speculation, prediction, and adaptive social organization ample fodder and an outlet for sharing them with others. What made humans start to read and write? There are multiple theories, but most likely symbols were used as a tool for accounting. As human social and political systems became larger, more elaborate, and more hierarchical, there was a growing need to keep track of obligations. “Initially it was the simple faculty of extracting visual information from any encoded system and comprehending the respective meaning” (Fischer, A History of Reading, p. 12), but the use of this faculty supported a number of social changes that led to the gradual elaboration of these systems. From simple marks denoting a number or symbolic linkage more sophisticated symbols, such as abjads and ideograms, were developed to meet new needs of information transmission. At this point, the marks denoted additional meanings, such as sounds and words, representing aspects of spoken language and, eventually, distinct ideas.
We will likely never know the exact path of writing’s (and thus, reading’s) development, because distinctive systems proliferated relatively rapidly. The initial assignation of a specific meaning for a written mark set off a wave of innovations and refinements that continue to this day. What is important to take away from this is that reading is an interpretive adaptation. As Maryanne Wolf notes in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:
“Whenever and however it occurred, reading never ‘just happened.’ The story of reading reflects the sum of a series of cognitive and linguistic breakthroughs taking place alongside powerful cultural changes” (p. 25).
Writing and reading did not make humans distinctive from other animals; that process was ages old. It was not an accident, although certainly trial-and-error is a hallmark of both reading and writing. These practices emerged from a series of other changes and both reflected ongoing developments while spurring new ones, even as they overtook other capacities we had developed, such as rich oral histories and deep memories.
It is easy to see reading and writing as progressive engines of change in human development, but we also have to keep in mind that these processes eventually overrode other innovations and capacities humans had created, and that they were often used as tools of power. For most of the history of reading only small numbers of humans have received the proper training to utilize the practice, and those initial systems of accounting were not just transactional, but reflections of the increasing specialization and hierarchy of human societies. In contemporary societies literacy is relatively widespread: depending on the statistics you believe, over 100 countries have literacy rates above 90%, with a large number (allegedly) possessing near-universal literacy. Of course, what access populations have to information, and what proficiencies they have in comprehension and critical assessment are harder to gauge. Even in these societies, however, writing and reading are tools for political and social struggle as well as for entertainment and education.
This brings me to the other point that emerges from the history of reading: despite the fact that many people can now read with some ease, to the point of doing it with little thought, reading is not something we do indifferently. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it in The Language of the Night, “Reading is not a passive reaction, but an action, involving the mind, the emotions, and the will” (p. 220). Reading is an activity, one that is inculcated with copious training, but that once learned seems to take on a life of its own. We catch ourselves reading whenever words appear in our line of vision; many of us read as much, if not more, than we speak. With the growth of the internet we have entered a still-unfolding realm of written communication (with other forms of media alongside) that we engage with ongoing reading, sometimes between multiples items. We seek out words to read constantly, not just for information but because more and more we connect to our social webs and worlds through the written word.
Reading has always been a social activity, even though it is at the same time a personal one. We learn reading as an adjunct to spoken language, but reading is not just the codification of sound. We do not take in and interpret writing the same way we do for spoken language. Reading does sometimes replace spoken communication (especially in the age of instant messages and phone texts), but reading does, and really has always done, more than this. It codifies, it ossifies, it concretizes language. Reading engages our mind in a different way than hearing speech, and thus is open to different paths of interpretation and response. We absorb writing differently than speech, and we respond to it differently. We can do things with writing, and reading, that we cannot do with regular speech. Certainly, we can listen to an audiobook or a reading, but that is still a different experience than reading words on a page or screen.
Reading is driven by socially-conditioned visualization, by the cultured use of space. The binding of language to visual cues allows a certain kind of suspension of meaning, creating a level of agreement and a preservation of implied meaning that even recorded speech does not have. But that binding creates only a provisional uniformity, because even though we can agree on what a letter signifies or what an article does in a sentence, reading is still a highly individualized process. When we read, we take what we have learned from others and apply it in our own way to the symbols we see, translating them according to both convention and our own ideas and agendas. Every word we read is a speculation, an educated guess on our part as to what a particular symbol means, and what train of meaning is being created by its relationship to other symbols and to the knowledge and feelings in our own minds. The history of reading is not just the history of our species’ inventiveness; it is a history of limiting meaning, of shaping perception, and of linking social entities. If we want to understand one piece of that, of how we read fantastic literature, for example, we have to come to terms with potentials and the parameters created by writing and the readings we create.