Reading about reading, books about books

The very art of reading has become a popular subject of books

 

I remember learning to read as a miraculous event, the adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment on a par with the thrill of cycling without stabilisers.

With my senior infant class we dutifully engaged in a monotone chanting of the two-sentence storybook on the curriculum.

The days of turning pages and tracing the words with stubby fingers finally paid dividends. My brain had a eureka moment and was able to differentiate the letters that made up M-a-u-r-a from the entirely different set that made up R-u-s-t-y, the dog.

Sister Fabian’s incantations about the plotless lives of Maura, Seán and Rusty had led to my first brush with semiotics, the philosophical theory that helps us understand how we use signs and symbols in meaning-making. Those were innocent days of Faber-Castell erasers before I tried to unravel the theories of Roland Barthes and Saussure.

According to Mortimer Adler who wrote the first edition of the educational classic How to Read a Book, this “discovery of meaning in symbols may be the most astounding intellectual feat that any human being performs”.

This classic deals with the fundamental and unchanging mesmerism of the written word and covers all levels of reading from the most basic to inspectional, from analytical or close reading to synoptical.

The mystery of how we learn to translate abstract symbols into meaningful sounds has been the subject of research for Fumiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist. Her findings linked an increase in white matter at a crucial juncture in a child’s development. This is a type of neural superhighway, allowing for communication between different parts of the brain: a child sees something, gives it meaning, then interprets that meaning.

Genetics and the environment play a role in determining whether some children have better reading abilities than others.

Isaac D’Israeli said that “there is an art of reading”. The art of reading which usually involves solitude and stillness and a commitment to staring at lines of words on a page until the pages run out is being targeted by technology and by the gaze of Lifehackers.

A Boston company called Spritz has developed an add-on for e-reader apps that aims to let you speed-read a book at up to 1,000wpm, a rate comparable with competitive speed readers.

This might have applicability when trying to consume vast amounts of data for research purposes but it goes against the very essence of the art of reading.

Books about books have become a popular genre, that help us immerse ourselves more deeply in the art of reading. Some of my favourites include Tim Park’s Where I’m Reading From and How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster, in which the reader is guided into a deeper understanding of literary fiction.

A new genre, the “bibliomemoir”, has emerged, described by Joyce Carol Oates as a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. Some of the most memorable include U and I by Nicholson Baker, about the author’s devotion to Updike, The Possessed by Elif Batuman, which takes the reader on a tour of the Russian greats including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by JC Hallman.

Bibliophiles are coming out of libraries and writing about books that have impacted on their lives,. They include Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. It is greatly encouraging to see these publications gain acclaim and popularity. I read recently about a master-class in London which aims to teach dogs to read using an iPad. Is this Rusty’s revenge or a signifier of the times?

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