What should you be reading this summer—and how should you be reading it? We’re often told that fiction offers us entertainment, moral examples, and lessons about life.
When I was eleven I had reader’s block—as my mom called it, when she tried to explain why I was acting even weirder than normal.
The several things that people call “reader’s block” are all forms of resistance to reading. “Reader’s block” might refer to reluctance to read at all; anxiety about reading some specific intimidating book; or that special frustrating phenomenon where you drag your eyes over the lines of a page without taking anything in.
What I had was most like this last thing, but more acute and puzzling. I think now that it was the result of a specific philosophical mistake about reading. I’ll explain why.
I was trying to read Homecoming, by Cynthia Voigt, for school. It’s a story of four abandoned siblings who journey to Bridgeport, Connecticut to find a relative who can care for them. It’s simply written and relatable. But I absolutely despised it.
When I tried to read Homecoming, I would concentrate intensely, and cast my eyes over a sentence. Then I would pause, unable to locate in my mind the impact of each individual word. I’d start the sentence again, this time focusing on the forgotten words. But then the other words would fade into the background. Then I’d try to hold the sentence as a whole in mind. I’d mentally chant full sentences until they lost all appearance of meaningfulness. Each page took me at least half an hour at this pace.
This went on for weeks. I freaked out.
Mine was not a generalized reading problem; I was an avid, quick reader. Nor was it an issue with grammatical parsing. I just loved grammar, and the sentences of Homecoming weren’t exactly complicated:
Dicey awoke at the first light. A chilly dew beaded the windshield. (p.20)
Windshield?? I’d think. Was that really a windshield in my mental image? Wait, hang on, was there an image at all? And so I’d start the sentence over.
What’s the point of this story, and what is it doing on a philosophy blog?
In my last post, I said that reading involves mental action. This point is crucial to understanding reading. But it contradicts a fairly natural—and seriously mistaken—idea about reading. It’s this idea that caused my struggle through Homecoming.
The mistaken idea is this: in reading, words impinge upon your passive mind to produce an item there that constitutes your understanding of those words. This idea implies that you just need to let some kind of understanding be plopped into your mind by the words on the page.
Once I had read a sentence of Homecoming once, I expected there to be some item—an image, or a bit of understanding, whatever that may be—left over for me to examine or ‘check.’ This Unit of Understanding, I thought, should have aspects that corresponded to each of the words in the original sentence. If not, the Unit would be defective, the result of a misapprehension or incomplete grasp of what was said.
The mistake I am attributing to myself is similar to a mistake about understanding discussed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, Section 138ff. “What really comes before our mind when we understand a word? – Isn’t it something like a picture?” the interlocutor suggests. There, Wittgenstein shows why this model of understanding cannot succeed on pain of regress. Doesn’t a picture itself need interpretation and understanding?
I myself was actually making two distinct but related mistakes. My first mistake was to think that reading a sentence properly implants some Unit of Understanding in the mind that can be examined by introspection. My second mistake was to think that whatever Unit of Understanding reading did implant in the mind must have introspectible bits corresponding to each of the words of the original sentence.
Thinking about reading as intentional action helps to counteract these mistakes.
While you are doing something intentionally, you have a certain awareness of what you’re doing while you are doing it—a point Anscombe, Hampshire, and countless other philosophers of action have made. This kind of awareness is sensitive to your means and strategies for accomplishing what you set out to do. It helps you adjust when things go wrong and stay abreast of what goes right. It incorporates awareness of the sub-actions required to produce the overarching action.
But this sort of awareness is also temporary. It animates your action with a rich awareness while you are acting, but it need not implant a finished item at the end.
Reading is more like that. If reading each sentence is an individual action, the reading of each word is a sub-action. In reading the sentence, you might have a rich but temporary awareness of what you’re doing in trying to parse each word. This gives way to another rich and temporary awareness of what you’re doing in parsing the next word, and so on. This temporally structured awareness of what you’re doing, I’m suggesting, can partly constitute your understanding of the sentence as read. If that’s right, your understanding the sentence can be spread out in time. Nothing like an image—or any other philosophically mysterious Unit of Understanding—will stand as testament to your success after you’re done actually reading the sentence.
Surely not all reader’s block is caused by the model of reading I had in mind when I suffered mine. But we should pay more attention to reader’s block—in my weirdo version, but also in all its more familiar forms—to better understand what reading is.