How do you read?

Round about May and November each year, I notice that the pile of “To be read” books by my bed is beginning to shrink. Not for long, however. The birthday comes; Christmas comes – the tower leaps up again.

Occasionally there’s some rearranging, when books that were on last year’s TBR pile are relegated to a Hopefully Some Day pile at the back. And of course I don’t only read books on either. There has to be scope for borrowed books, or joyous, (occasionally even duteous) rereads of books already read and officially shelved elsewhere.

I am not ashamed of acquiring more books, or that some are unread, but I don’t think that owning books (or reading books) are in themselves virtues.

I read an interesting article recently, arguing that book-lovers shouldn’t strive to read more books, more quickly here: speed-reading Reading is for learning and enjoyment, not for record-breaking.

“My slow reading,” Max Liu says, “seems to be down to a combination of slower processing speeds [than other people have], and “subvocalising” –  sounding out words as I read them.” This man is a professional book reviewer.

There are many ways of reading. Throughout book-history literate people have read books (and later newspapers of course) aloud in pairs or groups. This is the way books are presented to small children, and many adults still read aloud to each other. It’s increasingly common to buy or borrow audio books, once largely a resource for the blind -then you can enjoy a book in the car or while you jog.

There is a famous passage in St Augustine describing the odd way St Ambrose read: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.” (Confessions 6.3.3.)

Of course to us this is normal reading, but interestingly Augustine as a youth seemed to have expected Ambrose to have read aloud even when alone. I also find it interesting that I had misremembered this passage, and thought Ambrose was silently moving his lips, one stage between reading aloud and reading in his head. Apparently not.

Max Liu says he subvocalises: ie every word of a book is said inside his head.

In contrast to subvocalised reading there is “skimming,” usually assumed to be a method of reading quickly to get the main points of an article or find a crucial word.

It may be possible to skim novels, but I had always thought I was normal for doing neither of the above. Is there a word for the middle course between subvocalising and skimming – reading sufficiently closely to appreciate (you hope) the finer points of the story and yes, also the quality of the language and dialogue, but not running through every word?

When you think about it, this is quite a surprising thing to be able to do, although perhaps not more surprising than the way our eyes and minds automatically turn black squiggles on white into words. (Readers of “The Servant’s Voice” will know the amazement I still feel when I contemplate being able to do this.)

It is likely that my “unvoiced normread” technique (is there a word for it?) often comes closer to skimming than I would ideally like. This may be part of the reason why I don’t clearly picture fictional rooms or follow battle scenes – and miss crucial clues because I don’t remember which character has only one ear. (I think I also just don’t visualise as much as some.)

It is also true that when revising writing, I’ve found it essential to subvocalise, and preferably in an audible whisper.

How do you read?

I’m currently experimenting with subvocalising the latest Robert Galbraith – and although I do have a mental list of books as well as a physical pile, and two book clubs to satisfy… I will try not to bully myself to read more more more at the expense of reading with actual enjoyment and appreciation.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS. Belated Happy New Year, and my apologies for the long gap.

1 Comment
  • Matthew+Perry

    28th January 2023 at 1:27 pm Reply

    Hi Penny,
    Interesting points. My understanding is that historically reading was aloud by everyone and thus that Ambrose was very unusual. I have no idea when this changed.
    I think that one of the reasons I enjoy reading in Swedish is because I read more slowly – though because my vocabulary is restricted I have to guess the odd word so I do not neccesarily take more in.

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