Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What Is Reading?

What is reading? In Rainbow Rowell's book Fangirl, a character has some confusion over this question. Here's the scene:

“I tried to read it,” he said roughly. “I’ve been trying for the last two hours. I just, I’m not a reader. I’ve … I’ve never finished a book.” 

Cath turned to look at him, feeling a sudden guilty grab in her stomach. “Are you trying to tell me you can’t read?” 
Levi pushed his hair back violently. “Of course I can read,” he said. “Jesus Christ.” 
“Well, then, what are you trying to tell me? That you don’t want to?”  
“No. I—” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. “—I don’t know why I’m trying to tell you anything. I can read. I just can’t read books.” 
“So pretend it’s a really long street sign and muddle through it.” 

 “Jesus,” he said, surprised. Hurt. “What have I ever done to make you be this mean to me?” 

“I’m not being mean,” Cath said, knowing that she probably was. “I just don’t know what you want me to say—that I approve? What you and Reagan do isn’t any of my business.” 
“You think I’m lazy.” His eyes were on the ground. “And I’m not.” 
“It’s like I can’t focus,” he said, turning away from her in the doorway. “Like I read the same paragraph over and over, and I still don’t know what it says. Like the words go right through me and I can’t hold on to them.” 
“Okay,” she said. 
He looked back, just far enough to face her. Levi’s eyes were too big in his face when he wasn’t smiling. “I’m not a cheater,” he said.
“So you couldn’t find the movie?” she asked. “Even online?” 
“No. And the movie’s no good anyway. Teachers can always tell when you watch the movie.” He flopped down at the head of her bed. “Normally, I listen to the audiobook.” 
“That counts as reading,” Cath said, sitting at her desk. 
“It does?” 
“Of course.” 
He kicked one of the legs of her chair playfully, then rested his feet there, on the rail. “Well, then, never mind. I guess I have read lots of books."
It saddens me that there are people out there, especially people with learning
disabilities, differences, disorders, what have you, who believe that "reading" has such a narrow definition.

I guess I don't blame them. Merriam-Webster defines "read" as, "to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc."

Pardon me, but that's balderdash. I do understand that "read" has a specific and technical definition, but what word do we have in English that means "the intake, through the senses, of constructed language"?  We don't have such a word; the closest we have is "read."

The problem comes, I think, when people get too uppity about the superiority of the written page.  Western civilization takes a lot of pride in the way it archives information, through visual symbols.  But what about civilizations whose foundations rest in the spoken word?  Who's to say that sight and paper are superior to sound and memory? 

And it's not just a matter of different cultures.  It's a psychological fact that people favor certain senses over others.  For instance, there are visual learners, auditory learners, and tactile learners. Some people have a very strong preference for a certain sense.  Other people might have a disability that makes them favor a particular sense over the other.

So when it comes to reading, it's exclusionary to believe that the act of reading written words is superior to other forms of intaking language.  

It's my hope that one day this will go without saying: listening to audiobooks, touching braille, and seeing words are all forms of reading.  

Happy reading, everyone.

1 comment:

  1. Seriously. I have this problem with my husband. I asked him the other way the last time he ever finished a book, and he can't even remember! Can you believe that?! If that's not cause for divorce, I don't know what is! My son is studying sign language...on his own accord. He's in grade 2, and I don't know if it's just out of curiosity. Mind you, this boy is a sponge for knowledge. He refused to read story books. He reads about facts! FACTS. How boring is that? Lol. And my teen daughter is still in Manga stage. I can't wait until she starts making use of all these YA books in the house.

    Great post, Ellen!