reading and the brain

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Why Do I Read?

I’ve been thinking about reading lately. In the abstract, that is. It was a topic discussed in the most recent video chat at Writers Supporting Writers, just about the time I posted my TBR list for summer reading. And now I’ve joined another Goodreads Reading Round. So one way or another, I’m immersed in reading.

But why do I read at all?

I decided to ask myself the question at its most fundamental. Why do I read anything? Not fiction versus nonfiction, not a specific genre or a specific book. What is the impulse that makes me seek out text, words rendered into alphabetic characters on paper or screen?

Because I need to give my brain something to do, or something to engage with other than present reality.

This would be when whatever situation I’m in isn’t interesting enough, or when I want to get away from whatever is happening around me or in my head. It’s my way of disengaging from reality and placing my attention elsewhere.

Specifically, these are the situations in which my brain says, “I need something to read.”

  • Waiting. At the dentist’s, at the airport or on the airplane, in a lineup. Etc. Any situation I can’t escape, but in which there isn’t anything to engage my attention.
  • Eating. Yes, dinner table conversation is a good thing, but sometimes there’s nothing to say, or there isn’t anyone around but the dog. Dogs are not good conversationalists.
  • Detaching. From the day, the situation, the people around me. I always read for at least a few minutes before going to sleep. It’s the perfect way to transition from daily frets and thoughts to the relaxed state conducive to sleep.
  • Enhancing. Reading perfects a state of passive enjoyment, such a at the beach or a picnic, where one is in pleasant surroundings with nothing to do. Give the brain a book and let the body soak up the sun, birdsong, breeze, etc.

Reading is such a simple action. You pick up the text-bearing object (sheets of paper bound together or a hand-held electronic device), open it or turn it on, and focus your eyes. Okay, some may need to put on glasses first. That’s it. You start reading where you left off and keep reading at whatever speed you like.

And–best of all, in my opinion–you can stop at any point without losing the thread, knowing you can return to the text whenever you like.

Now I’m wondering when the human brain developed this hunger for text. We know we told stories long before the emergence of written language. Reading became a universal human experience only in the past couple of centuries, so the brain’s need for text (as distinct from story) must be similarly recent.

Storytelling is a social activity, but reading silently to oneself is private. Some scholars think silent reading was the beginning of an interior life. I think this is unlikely; surely people in pre-literate societies had private thoughts, imaginings, and flights of fancy? But it does seem that once reading is a choice, for some of us it becomes a need.

While silent reading is a solitary activity, it is nevertheless a form of communication. Text is indirect communication without the immediacy of face-to-face speech, but it preserves ideas, images, and sounds. It carries them across time and space. It transcends mortality.

pocket watch and book

In conclusion: I read to give my brain something to do, and to be transported virtually to a different environment where I can vicariously experience things I probably never will in real life.

As a reader, I’m happy that there are so many writers creating stuff to read, so I don’t have to resort to whatever happens to be available nearby (cereal box, instruction manual, nutritional info, last week’s newspaper). But what does this mean to me as a writer?

To be continued in Why Do I Write?

The Movie in the Mind

What happens in your head when you read fiction? I see movies. They are sort of fragmented and compressed, and share some qualities with dreams, but I definitely see pictures. I see the characters and settings as described by the author and hear the conversations represented by the written dialogue.

Each scene is a separate little film, ranging from (to mix a metaphor) a sketch to a fully-realized, detailed picture, depending on the amount of description furnished by the author. If the scenes all take place in a single building, city or some other discrete place, but without a description of the place as a whole, I have only the vaguest notion of how the various rooms, streets, squares, hills, water bodies, etc. fit together. They just float around separately. This is one of the reasons for the dreamlike feel of mind-movies. But unless an idea of the big picture is necessary in order to follow the plot, it really doesn’t matter.

If the big picture is necessary, there is often a map supplied to help the reader. Maps are great, but they have a peculiar compressing effect. I see the events happening right on the map itself, tiny but vivid, and have to zoom in.

Fictional people can be both shadowy and vivid at the same time — not so much sets of multiple physical characteristics as conglomerations of mannerisms superimposed on physical types. The writer doesn’t need to give detailed descriptions of a character, as though for a police file; a picture emerges as I see the person moving around and hear them speaking.

An interesting thing is that reading any piece of written narrative unreels a mind-movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, well or badly-written, exciting or boring.

Some pieces of writing leave colourful, vivid impressions in my mind. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one; Richard Adams’s Maia is another, along with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books. All of these involve a good deal of description, because they are set in fictional worlds created by their authors. That got me thinking about description in writing.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Landor’s Cottage” is almost pure description. The narrator, wandering the countryside, becomes lost and comes upon a cottage in a valley. That’s pretty much all that happens; 95% of the piece is a detailed description of the house and its setting. Recently I tried reading it again, having remembered it from my first reading at least 40 years ago. I remembered the mental picture I saw when I read the piece, even to details such as the grassy road that leads to the place, with carefully arranged stones at the sides, and the great tulip tree that is a dominant feature of the site. Clearly, all this description made a lasting impression on me. But was “Landor’s Cottage” a riveting read the second time? No. About half way through, I got bored and started skimming.

So now I have a theory — whatever part of the brain makes those mind-movies can’t cope with too much of any one element. I have said in an earlier post that I find long action sequences boring. Most writers believe that too much description and long stretches of dialogue unrelieved by action (the infamous “talking heads”) are to be avoided. Yes, yes and yes.

It’s best to mix up the elements. A bit of action, a bit of dialogue (possibly interlayered with the action), brief, vivid bits of description, and a very small amount of narrator’s commentary (or none; the author should know whether it’s needed). That will keep the movie-maker in the brain happy, and the reader reading.