Reading used to be considered a dangerous practice. If the ‘lower classes’ started doing it they might begin questioning the social order, and young girls would get ‘ideas’. How right they were to worry.
No doubt you give consideration to what you read, though you probably don’t give much thought to how you read. Why would you? We read all the time for one reason or another – most of us take it for granted. But we had to train our brain to read. We have an in-built, genetic capacity for language, but the writing and reading came much later – we have to learn them.
How we were taught to read can influence the way we respond to different types of writing. As a child I was deeply affected by a teacher’s careless remark in a school report that I was ‘on a low reading plateau’ – imagining myself some kind of insect scratching in debris left by those who had reached the summit. I don’t think this term is used anymore.
It wasn’t that I was slow to read, but that I read slowly. Words were a form of magic; I loved the sound of them and how they felt in my mouth. When reading to myself, I didn’t move my lips to form the words but I pronounced them silently in my head. This now has a respectable name – sub-vocalization – and it reflects the method of teaching to read by breaking up words phonetically.
Apparently, when we read – however we read – minute electrical charges are exchanged between the brain and the larynx; these are stronger in people who read sub-vocally. It is something to do with the evolution of language and the fact that we first learn words orally. This brain-larynx connection is present in some degree however fast we read.
The other main teaching method is sight-reading: recognizing the shapes of whole words and even phrases. Reading this way is faster – sometimes called speed reading – and overwhelmed by homework, I had to learn it at high school. Even that wasn’t rapid enough when I reached horrendous university reading lists. I learned to skim – gulping whole paragraphs to find the gist of the text, selecting which, if any, would be read in detail. I still use this system for research and for reading the local newspaper.
Had I finally reached the summit? Not exactly. It turns out that each form of reading has a different effect on our comprehension, imaginative response, and memory; which would explain how education ruined my enjoyment of reading for years. It seems that translating visual material into ‘sounds’ in our mind – slow or close reading – results in greater flexibility and duration, allowing us more effectively to integrate new material with existing ideas while enhancing emotional engagement and memory. The good news is: we can choose how we read.
Bombarded with texts on our iPhones and screens, swept up in the escalation of modern fast life, a counter insurgency is under way: The Slow Book Movement launched in 2009 by writer, I. Alexander Olchowski.
Creative writing is multi-layered. When we rip through an exciting novel, desperate to know what happens, we risk missing other themes and values the writer may laboriously have woven into the tale, never mind an appreciation of the author’s style. This applies even more strongly to a short story.
In the limited space of a short story, words and images often perform several tasks at once. Each word has been thoughtfully chosen; perhaps its sound as well as its precise connotation was selected to suggest atmosphere, setting, or a character trait without adding additional words; it may contain a deeper layer of meaning. As with poetry, sound and rhythm are an integral part of experiencing the wholeness of a short story; a pleasure we miss when we speed read or skim. And their brevity enables us to enjoy this level of reading and rereading without taking up a whole weekend: a mere fifteen minutes can be surprisingly rewarding.
It is no coincidence that writers read their stories aloud while editing.
Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. ‘A book-lover’s book to have and to hold.’