Reading. Why bother?
In my teens, watching University Challenge on TV, I howled at the idea of contestants from the University of Reading reading chemistry. Or philosophy. Or even English.
Reading strikes me as a good place to live for someone who enjoys reading. Such a person probably likes words too – their variations, their playfulness, their slipperiness. By ‘reading’, I mean the cognitive process of decoding symbols to derive meaning from text. But you knew that.
You probably also know about typoglycaemia (though perhaps not by that name) because of the jokey email or FaceBook postings that reveal how quickly and accurately we deduce meaning, even when words don’t look remotely like they’re supposed to. So another definition of ‘reading’ is: the way the eye moves rapidly to draw meaning from text. Very little is accurately ‘seen’ but you get it anyway.
If you’re still with me, you’re doing it at this minute. Reading, I mean. You’ll be finding it more or less pleasant (physically) depending on how your browser displays this page. If the column appears too wide, with a long line for your eye to follow, reading will be harder. Typographers tell us that – for ease of making sense – the length of a line should be between 50-60 characters (that includes spaces). It will also help if the sentences aren’t too long, and if the words don’t have too many syllables (see Flesch-Kinkaid Readability Test).
(Actually the word ‘readability’ is reducing my readability, since it is polysyllabically rich, but not as polysyllabic as ‘polysyllabically’.)
But never mind. Reading is good for you. Reading is also good for me. That is to say if you read, it’s good for me. Because I sell books and pamphlets and – yes – I hope you will buy some of them and read them. Not, alas, Fiona Moore's The Only Reason for Time, however, because although only published at the end of April, it has been selling like the proverbial hot cakes and we are down to the final copies.
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts in America did a survey about what they called ‘literary reading’. They called this Reading at Risk, which sums up their findings nicely. They discovered that – from young adulthood onwards – everybody was reading less (less ‘literature’, that is, though their definition of ‘literature’ was broad). The more education people had, the more they read, but all of them were reading significantly less than they used to.
I specially liked the way the NEAA survey suggested that people who did read literature were more likely to do other things too: they were more likely to do volunteer work, go to art galleries, concerts and films, and participate in and go to sporting events. The more you read, the richer your whole life. So forget the image of bookworms stuck at home with spectacles falling off the end of their noses.
Of course, I would like this, wouldn’t I? I sell bits of things to read and I believe reading is the answer to everything.
But I'm not alone. Here's my favourite bit from the first volume of Stephen Fry's autobiography, Moab is My Washpot. At this point in the book, Fry is at boarding school in Uppingham:
In my first year I had Fawcett as a friend, and later, a boy called Jo Wood, with whom I was to share a study in my second year. Jo Wood was sound, sound as a bell. Solid, cynical, amused and occasionally amusing, he did not appear to be very intelligent, and unlike Richard Fawcett and me, seemed uninterested in words, ideas and the world.
But one day he said to me: ‘I’ve got it now. It’s reading, isn’t it?’
‘You read a lot, don’t you? That’s where it all comes from. Reading. Yeah, reading.’
The next time I saw him he had a Herman Hesse novel in his hands. I never saw him again without a book somewhere on his person. When I heard, some years later, that he had got into Cambridge I thought to myself, I know how that happened. He decided one day to read.