Ways of Reading
Last Wednesday, my wife and I went to see the newest Harry Potter movie, The Half-Blood Prince. As someone who had never read a Harry Potter book yet still enjoyed the previous movies well enough, I was happily willing to go but not especially eager nor overjoyed with anticipation the way my wife and the majority of the audience seemed to be.
As it turned out, the movie was great fun: full of action and drama and mystery and cool special effects. In fact, by the time the end credits rolled I had completely succumbed to its spell: I wanted (no – needed!) to know what would happen next and how things would be resolved.
My wife refused to give me answers: “Guess you’ll have to read the final book for yourself or else wait until the next movie comes out.” Frustrated, I called my brother for answers and he said basically the same thing: “You should read the final book. It’s a quick read.”
For me, a quick read is never a quick read. Unlike my brother and my wife, I tend to read very slowly. So when I picked up the seventh Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, and held the nearly-800 page tome in my hands, I had the distinct feeling that I would be dedicating the rest of my summer to completing it.
That was Wednesday evening. Flash forward to last night around 11:00. Only four days later. Sitting on the couch in our living room. I turned the final page, closed the book, and said to my wife, “I finished it.” Neither one of us could believe it. The slowest reader on planet earth had devoured 700+ pages in four days. How could it be possible?
It got me thinking.
How is the experience of reading Harry Potter different than the experience of reading, say, Gravity’s Rainbow? How is it that I can spend 2 hours reading 20 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow and then turn around and spend 2 hours reading 80 pages of Harry Potter?
Maybe you’re thinking that’s a dumb question, Harry Potter being a kid’s book and Gravity’s Rainbow being an adult book, the obviously differing levels of sophistication and complexity in content, ideas, concepts, language usage, syntax, diction, etc.
But I’m thinking it might be something other than those obvious distinctions that make the experience qualitatively different. I’m thinking it has something to do with the way we read, rather than what we read.
Perhaps it is a matter of the phenomenological act of reading: whether you tend to look at every word or skim or skip passages, whether you tend to read and then reread passages or read them once and move on, whether you tend to visualize the text in your mind as you are reading or experience the words as concepts on the page. Perhaps it has to do with the reasons we read: our purposes or intentions when we approach a text. Perhaps it has to do with our training: how we were taught to read, what we were taught to look for, to notice, to value.
I don’t know. What do you think?