On Reading

Sunday 1 April 2012, 9:00 pm   ////  

I was asked to discuss reading (and reading education) from my perspective recently. Here’s the reply I gave…

The students I teach now, like other university students I have taught, have the ability to read. They are perfectly able to move their eyes over a page, or a screen, and recognize the typographical symbols as letters that make up words that make up sentences or lines.

The problems they face usually relate to a narrow concept of reading, which includes an unwillingness to read a wider variety of texts. These are not problems that are restricted to well-qualified, well-educated university students who are expert readers. As the networked computer provides tremendous access to writing and transforms our experience of language, all of are asked to rethink and enlarge our reading ability.

One problem with reading too narrowly is the view that reading is only instrumental. People who spend a significant portion of their lives speaking to their friends and family members about nothing – simply because they enjoy company and conversation – will sometimes refuse to believe that reading can a pleasure in and of itself. Reading is too often seen only as a tool, to allow one to follow instructions, determine the ingredients in packaged food, or to learn about some news event or underlying argument.

To try to enlarge a student’s idea of reading, I might present a text that, whether said aloud or imagined to one’s self, communicates almost nothing and is simply beautiful. To take a very conservative example:

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
  Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,—
      Emerald twilights,—
      Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
  Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
    Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
      The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;—

This is from an American poem, Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn, published in 1878. It shows that it is not necessary to turn to some almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem to see how sound can overflow meaning, providing a pleasure that has almost nothing to do with communication. Lanier had a very musical view of poetry, but this poem does not need to be sung or played by an expert musician. Anyone who can read English can bring it alive.

Another problem with a narrow concept of reading is not understanding the full range of what can be read. Students are comfortable reading pages and feeds, and reading emails and IMs, but it is not always as clear how they might read around in the library to explore as researchers, how they might read an unusual Web site or other complex digital object, or how they might read their daily urban environment. Those of us familiar with art and literature will habitually “view” something in the former category, perhaps not even noticing that it may be legible.

To address this issue, I do turn to an almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem, Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, the first panel. This Canadian concrete poem, typed in a red and black in an amazing configuration of characters, seems to many to be an artwork but was created by a poet and published as poetry. Unlike the most famous Brazilian concrete poems, this is an example of “dirty concrete” that many do not even see, initially, as legible. Students who are able to assume the attitude of readers find that it can be read, however, and that it has an amazing ability to disclose things about reading: Our assumptions in how to trace words and letters in space, our ability to fill in partly-missing and entirely missing letters, the question of how to sound fragments of words and patterns of punctuation marks.


The first page of Carnival, panel one, is from the Coach House online edition.

When people learn how to speak a language – whether as an infant or later in life – they sometimes simply babble or chat. Everyone would agree that a learner should be allowed to enjoy speaking and listening, to enjoy making and hearing the sounds of a language, in addition to caring about the purposeful uses of that language. I believe it’s the same for reading. Reading is more than just a process of decipherment that provides an information payload. It gives us special access to the pleasures of language and to its complexities. Any sighted person, with or without any English, can look at the first panel of Carnival. But only a reader can both view it and read it, comprehending it as a visual design and as language. If a reader is unwilling to hear The Marshes of Glynn, it could be understood simply as a botanical catalog with some lovers traipsing about here and there. To hear, instead, the play of sound and sense, is to encounter something new, to understand another aspect of words and how they work.

1 Comment »

  1. Great thoughts professor! I reckon reading is an art that engages the mind with exercise and feeds the pool of words we own. But consequent from this foregoing thought is the relative proclivity to be more attracted to what appeals to our minds, culture and expectations.

    Comment by Ayo Morakinyo — 2012-04-11 @ 12:27 pm

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