One of the comments on The Digital Reader‘s piece Is hardcover the new vinyl? got me thinking. Joseph Sanchez says “There is another significant difference between books and music: music does not require your full attention. I have music playing in my office all day . . .”.

Maybe the ideal reader, of whom Mr Sanchez is apparently an example, never fails to address the book with complete and focussed attention. Shamefacedly I have to report that I am not that ideal reader. All too often I find my mind has disengaged its gears and is gaily freewheeling down the page until brought to a sharp stop by that big white snow drift at the bottom. At this point one has to decide whether it’s worthwhile climbing back uphill to continue the conscious journey, or just cutting one’s losses and flipping onwards. Of course, not going back rather calls into question the basic reason why you are reading the book in the first place, but I think few will abandon a book because of one temporary brain freeze.

Actually I can recall instances where this freewheeling went on for several pages before the jolt woke me up. This often seemed to happen with foreign language books where the poor student was reading for the word meaning as well as for the sense. If you have to stop every few feet to look up a word, it quite easily becomes hard to discern what road you are on and where the last corner was. Eventually a student of modern languages will get to the point where reading may be done pretty much as it is in our native tongue — in other words you just smoothly overtake the words you can’t actually define and infer their meaning from the context. I was always rather distressed that classics students at university never seemed to get to that take off point. My room mate, a classicist, would always have to sit there with a Greek or Latin dictionary open beside him. Perhaps that gift is reserved for the postgraduate.

Poetry needs to be read in yet another way. Of course you have to keep your brain in gear, but you need also to be reading with your ear. This doesn’t mean you have to read out loud, though that’s a good ploy; it’s enough to mouth the words so that your body forms them and “feels” the shape of the line. I realize this sounds a bit effete, but it really is true: I think the poet wants you to appreciate the “mouth-feel” of the words. However I find it distressingly easy to read verse with disengaged mind. Maybe this is why people tend to read poems multiple times! At this point I make a conscious decision not to get into close reading, though it does of course have similarities with that reading with the dictionary open beside you.

I don’t believe there’s any real difference in the way we read an e-book or a p-book, just as I don’t think we’d read a hardback in any different way than we’d read a paperback. Much more significant than the format of the book is the mood of readers, and most importantly how tired they may be. I wonder if this means that reading in bed is significantly different from reading at a desk. I haven’t noticed any consistent effect.

Obviously reading a science book calls for a different kind of engagement with the text, though for all I know mathematicians can probably sweep through multi-line equations without any more hesitation than one of us coming up against a rare word. But when you read for study, maybe taking a note here and there, you are behaving very differently than when you are enjoying the new James Patterson. Whether note-taking aids comprehension or not perhaps depends on who you are. To some it’s vital, so vital that the Kindle had to give you the capability, while to others like me it’s just a silly distraction. Highlighting with yellow magic marker always seemed to me to be a way of deceiving the world into thinking that you’d read and understood the book. It strikes me as ritualized behavior analogous to a dog’s lifting its leg at every lamppost.

Maybe we have to consider reading music. Obviously different; yet interpreting signs written on paper is what reading is. As a musical semi-literate all I can do here is leave it to those of you better qualified than me to comment. (Looping back to the start of this riff, I might point out that listening to music is not all about having it play as a background to your other activities: clearly you can study a song in a serious and attentive way.)

And let us not forget reading aloud. This used to be a more widespread habit than it is nowadays. St Jerome is reputed to be the first person to figure out that one could read silently; but here I’m thinking more of reading aloud to someone else. In early modern times a book would be more likely to be a family good than an individual possession, and would be “read” with the ears by most people. Modern families tend not to read aloud to one another: this is now thought of as something you do for a child. Clearly if you are reading aloud you do need to keep alert. You have to encourage the engagement with the text not only of yourself, but of your audience. The villain has to speak in a growl, the ingenue sweetly, the hero boldly. It’s a performance. The current boom in audio books means that many actors are making good money reading books into the mic. I’ve not done enough reading aloud to adults, or being read to, to be able to report whether or not voicing the text makes any difference to one’s appreciation of it. Certainly reading the lesson in church gives you a different feeling than silent reading — a feeling of nervous tension.

Studying a textbook and reading out loud both have much in common with our first engagement with a book, when we were being taught to read. It wasn’t so much a word by word hike then, as a letter by letter trek. Mental Floss (via Shelf Awareness) sent us 15 Fun Facts about Dick and Jane a while back. My memory goes back too far for all this — Dick and Jane in four color — what are you talking about? We did have a second color, dark green comes up when I say “Run Spot, run!” This is the locus of my only (mild) synesthesia: when I say the word book I smell the warm, dusty classroom in Gullane where I first formally and publicly engaged with one.