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Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading as an Act of Defiance

There's a lot of research out there on reading and how people learn to read.  Scientists use fancy terms like "sub-lexical" and "phonemic awareness" to talk about how readers give meaning to and make sense of the little black squiggles on a page.  Essentially the research boils down to this:

Readers start out "learning to read."
Eventually they shift gears into "reading to learn."

Scientists use their big scientific words to explain the whole "learning to read" part, but what happens when readers get to the "reading to learn" stage?  Is that all there is?  Is that as good as it gets?

I don't think so.

The way I see it, there are lots of different ways you can "read to learn" and it all depends on what you want to get out of the thing you're reading.  Here's my take on the stages of reading that happen once you're "reading to learn."

The Collector:  This reader collects clues and information from the text.  She reads with a pen in one hand and a highlighter in the other.  She underlines a lot.  She makes careful notes in the margin and copious outlines.  For her, language is a means to an end; it is simply a way for a book to convey valuable information.  Boring textbooks tend to bring out the Collector-Reader in many of us, mostly because underlining helps keep us awake.

The Interpreter:  This reader is constantly asking "what does it mean?"  He wants to know exactly what the author was trying to say with each phrase, each sentence.  This quest becomes all the more urgent if the author is no longer alive and therefore cannot be asked directly.  The interpreter believes in the infallibility of literature: that if Shakespeare put a comma in that precise spot he must have done it on purpose and therefore it has to mean something.  Just as Freud believed there are no accidents in life and all actions stem from a deeper meaning, the Interpreter-Reader is certain that there are no accidents in literature and if the author wrote it that way, then there has to be a reason.

The Revolutionary:  This reader doesn't worry about what it all means, because to her it doesn't matter.  Meaning is relative.  Instead, when she reads something, she wonders "how did the author do that?"  What's the author's agenda and what slight-of-hand tricks is he using to pull it off?  Writers are almost always in this category because they know that when authors write something, they're just trying to get a reaction or response from the reader.  Writers know this because they do it all the time themselves.

The Revolutionary realizes that by putting words on a page, the author is trying to shape the reader's interpretation of those words.  Whenever an author chooses one word over another and puts that word down on the page, he is making a decision that will shape or manipulate the reader's response.  The moment a reader recognizes that this is happening, he or she can decide whether or not they will allow themselves to be manipulated.  It's just like realizing that televised news broadcasts are not objective, but have specific agendas; once you recognize that, you can see past it and look for the actual information.

More importantly, though, writers know that when look under the hood to figure out how a piece of writing works, you're not too far from learning to build an engine from scratch.  After all, the moment you ask: "how did the author do that?" you're just a half-breath away from asking: "how can I do it?"  And that's what writing's all about.

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