Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Why We Read

Why do we read anyway? As a communications technology, writing has pretty obvious utility. But that's not why we read Dave Barry, Robert Ludlum, Paul Krugman. Ever since audio tape, we've potentially had the option of listening. Of course, we do like to listen--the enduring popularity of radio (and TV when we're not directly watching it) are proof of that. But if recreational reading were about wanting to be told stories, why didn't electronic audio supplant text for most purposes long ago? Isn't it less effort to listen than to read? And what is it that makes audio books less appealing? I might love Meryl Streep's voice, or Anthony Hopkin's, in a voice-over. For some reason, though, listening to them read an entire book to me seems a lot less appealing.

I don't think I have all the answers here, but I think I do have a partial-explanation theory I can't remember committing to writing before. (If you've seen it elsewhere, earlier, please write me.)

We listen when we want to be told things. We read when we want to love the sound of our own voices--perhaps to love our voices more than we have any right to, but nevertheless to love our own voices all the same.

I can hear the objections already. "I read authors because I love the sound of their voices!" Well, yes, that's true as well. But it's after the fact, I will argue. "I hate my voice when I read something aloud and listen to a recording of it! Don't you?" No doubt. I know the feeling. But I'm not talking about your real voice. I'm talking about your own voice as it would be most loved by you.

Studies of the psychology of reading have shown that we all subvocalize when we read. Forget speed reading. (I love Woody Allen's old joke about that, about reading War and Peace in two hours in a bookstore: "It's about Russia.") Even if you don't move your lips when you read, slight subliminal vocal muscle movement is recorded, correlating with what you're taking in.

So here's my theory: all text you read is merely support for a kind of fiction, in which you take on the author's voice, and in that way, slip into the author's persona. Reality has nothing to do with it. As Mark Twain said, fiction must be believable, but reality is under no such constraint. We continue reading because of a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary-delusion self-flattery that we are saying things as well as the writer, that we are capable of the writer's imagination. This doesn't preclude a certain sense of distance from the text, from which we can also admire the writer as a writer. But the main impetus for moving from one sentence to the next is to get this feeling: "I'm saying this. I'm telling the story." When we say we love a piece of writing, we're mainly reporting on the (admittedly false) experience of being the story teller ourselves.


At 8:03 AM, Blogger Adele Revella said...

Great post, Michael. I've been avid reader all my life and now I know why. You also gave me an excellent case study for the value of blogging. I found your post through my RSS reader which was looking for anything on personas. I teach a class on product marketing, so I'm starting a blog on personas and want to follow what's being said. My blog is still password protected, so you won't find it, but I just found a new place to stay when I come to Tokyo.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger solostyle said...

Interesting. My first reaction to the title of "why we read" was something harkening back to the free speech movement. What would happen to our freedom to read what we want (porno magazines, otherwise "immoral" publications that had to win their right to be published), if we stopped reading? Would it be that significantly affected these days, since we still have choices with what internet videos and radio programs we can subscribe to? Still, we might cease to have some choices if we give up reading.

But more in response to your writing... There is something universalizing about reading words and hearing them in your mind, with a voice (whether it's yours or not). There's a fluidity of attribution when we subvocalize, as you say. But I think your last sentence ("When we say we love a piece of writing, we're mainly reporting on the (admittedly false) experience of being the story teller ourselves.") is a little too strong. I don't think I've ever misattributed to such a degree as to believe that the words I read were written by myself, or thought by myself. I think maybe I only misattribute when I read something that sounds uncannily like my own writing. And even then, I make note of it. Of course, you can't be aware of the times when you don't make note of it, making this whole argument moot... But still, I feel that when I do love a piece of work, I am able to effectively distance myself--that I don't actually believe that I imagine things as well as the writer! Oftentimes, I'm not even sure that I do understand the writer fully. Rereading and questioning my understanding further distances me from the possibility of this delusion.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Rick Lee said...

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At 2:25 AM, Anonymous Judi Bola said...

Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read.

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