Written by Nimue Brown
Many of us learn to read when very young and as such it’s a skill we can easily take for granted, and under-estimate.
Reading is a very effective way of acquiring information, but there is also massive scope for misreading – most especially when dealing with a text from an unfamiliar culture. By this I don’t just mean the implications of writing from other periods, peoples, traditions and cultures.
Every group has it’s own way of communicating. A political paper from the EU is written in a very different way from a scientific paper, which is very different again from the conventions of a culinary blog. To read something well you need a handle on the conventions at play in the writing and that takes multiple encounters. Reading the unfamiliar is less likely to result in a complete understanding, and it really helps to factor that in and to consider your own limitations as a reader.
It’s good to be alert to your own biases and assumptions. This isn’t easy, but the more attention you pay the better a sense you get. Watch out for the phrases that jar you or the things you are inclined to reject. Be alert to your own emotions when reading. If something makes you angry or frustrated it’s good to stop and make space to examine that.
If a text has an emotional impact on you, it is good to pause and reflect on how and why that’s happening. Consider whether the emotions are something the text is trying to elicit. If you’re crying over the tragic end of a story then you’re probably responding in the way the author intended. If you’re angry with a stranger on the internet, it’s worth pausing to see if that anger is something you’ve brought with you. It’s worth studying the ways in which you are affected as a reader because that will help you hone your bard skills to deliberately create those effects yourself.
Reading creates opportunities not only to learn the material in the text, but also to learn about ourselves. In exploring our own emotional responses to what we read, we can find out more about who we are. Being more self aware makes it more feasible to choose how we want to be rather than being a victim of circumstance.
Reading is at its most complicated when we get into the territory of what is inferred, and what is implied. Some texts are written with the aim of making us infer things that are never plainly stated. Some texts imply things that the author did not intend to convey but are nonetheless fair inferences. We might think about racism in colonial writing on these terms. There’s (unconscious?) sexism in stories that feature zero women with agency who add no more to the tale than would a sexy lamp.
At the same time we have to be alert to the things we might read in just because we’re looking for them. Projecting can be particularly an issue around this, and that’s not always about bringing anger or the worst parts of ourselves. We can also project our own virtues into a text. As a child-reader I was forgiving, and I filled in the gaps in stories imaginatively. Going back to some texts as an adult reader I was surprised by how much of my childhood reading experience had been about my own attitude and imagination.
Stories always have gaps in them. The spaces in stories give us room to engage imaginatively with a text, and that’s one of the great pleasures of reading. A book is always a collaboration between the imagination of the author and the imagination of the reader. What we bring, and what we find can have a very big part of our selves in it. We all also tend to respond strongly to books that reflect back to us our own experiences and that show us something of ourselves. A sense of being understood by the author can also have a huge impact on how we read and what we take away with us.
Reading fiction is a creative activity. It’s not about just passively absorbing the text. The best way to learn about how you, as a creator might engage people in this way is to think about your own experience as a reader.
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