Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Not Reading

To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work. Likewise for the text: it produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

For being an easily distracted person, I've always sought out somewhat distracting environments in which to read. Some of this impulse is nostalgic -- reading to the sound of a football game on TV or clattering dishes, for example, are comforts from childhood -- and sometimes it feels necessary to have the extraneous noise to tune out to give me incentive to narrow my focus.

Last night, though, while reading what is so far a very good book in such an environment, I suddenly sat up straighter with a startled feeling, like I'd just come around a corner in my own brain and caught myself doing something that always makes me feel guilty. People don't often admit to this, but they do it too, right? I realized that for at least a few pages, I hadn't really been reading.

The practice that I'm referring to is different from drifting off while reading, staring at the page thinking other thoughts. I was, actually, moving my eyes from line to line. Probably every sixth sentence entered my brain in a real, resonating way. I turned the pages at my regular pace. I wasn't really listening to anything going on around me. I wasn't thinking about anything else in particular, just occasional thoughts coming and going, like they always are. I was simply reading without reading.

I'll be honest: this happens a lot.

This confession would probably confuse some of the people who think of me as a reader. I've often been told how absorbed I appear by books, how specifically and passionately I speak about them, how much I seem to enjoy reading, and it's true -- there are few things in the world I like more. But, just like sometimes we read to escape, sometimes to learn, sometimes to entertain, I think we must admit that sometimes we read just to be reading, and that this sort of reading is not an exclusive mental activity. There is shame in this, like we're doing it wrong, right? But is this kind of reading less valuable than any other? I enjoyed the experience, I felt satisfied with my progress in my book (which, no, I will not name, lest I recommend it here sometime in the future and, despite my pleas that you understand this phenomenon, you think that I'm a faker and the book must be boring) and put it down with a desire to pick it up again soon. I'm not going to re-read those sentences I missed. I didn't need them. The ones I did need found their way in. Am I alone here? Or is this what reading is, and the part that I've been doing wrong is feeling like I'm always supposed to be doing it better?


jenn said...

You are not alone. My boyfriend makes fun of me for doing this, and I have never been able to defend myself, but you make a good case. Thank you for articulating this phenomenon.

Cheri said...

More French philosopher-inspired riffing, I suppose, but there's a certain kind of *reverie* that some books/writing/sentences (hell, experiences) trigger. Afterward, it looks pretty undisciplined and sloppy -- as you track so well here -- but the disappearances also feel productive, despite having nothing to show for any of it afterward! Could be an elaborate rationalization, but I sure hope not. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Michelle said...

Funny, I was just talking to my husband about this the other day. I'd been reading a bedtime book to my son, and at one point my son asked me, "What just happened?" and I had no idea. It was a Roald Dahl book, and though I adore Roald Dahl, I had to go back several pages to get my bearings. Even the pictures didn't ring a bell. In my mind I'd been playing out conversations from earlier in the day, making plans, etc. What's strange to me about this is how the mind manages to process the words themselves without absorbing meaning, while simultaneously processing an entirely different set of words and's as though there's a parallel universe at work in the mind.

Kelly Robinson said...

I did this a lot when I was a child. Sure, I was often entranced by a book, but at some point I discovered that if I SEEMED to be lost in a book, adults would have conversations in front of me that they thought I wasn't listening to. It was a great snooping device.