What We See When We Read

Key Insights

Books allow you to enter an invisible world

"When you first open a book, you enter a liminal space. You are neither in this world, the world wherein you hold a book, nor in that world (the metaphysical space the words point toward). To some extent this polydimensionality describes the feeling of reading in general--one is in many places at once."

Not all books can be read the same way

"If books were like roads, some would be made for driving quickly--details are scant, and what details are there appear drab--but the velocity and torque of the narrative is exhilarating. Some books, if seen as roads, would be made for walking--the trajectory of the road mattering far less that the vistas these roads might afford."

This description of books really hit home for me. I think it helps me solidify the fact that not every books can be read the same way, and that's okay! Some books need time to read and absorb the information. Others, you can zip right through without having to think twice about it.

The Eye-Voice Span

The distance between where ones eyes are looking on a page and where , on the page, one's inner voice is reading.

Reading is not a series of sequential "nows"

"Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment--and in the performative reading moment as well. Each fluid interval comprises an admixture of: the memory of things read (past), the experience of consciousness "now" (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).

This is evident in how we picture fictional characters. Some books open with the description of characters, like Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood. But most of the time, we learn a little about a character at a time and add that to a "picasso-esque" image in our minds of what we think the character looks like, updating it with each bit of information.

All good books are mysteries

"At heart, all good books are mysteries. Authors withhold information. This information may be revealed over time. This is one reason we bother to turn a book's pages. A book my be a literal mystery, like Murder on the Orient Express, or a metaphysical mystery, like Moby Dick, or a mystery of purely architectonic kind--a chronoptic mystery, like The Odyssey.

A description can be a rank or purpose (in a book and in life)

If you're reading a mystery novel and a character is introduced with a mustache, as a reader, you draw assumptions about that characters role in the book. Descriptions, therefore, can be a rank and a purpose.

"[Descriptions] tell the readers whether they are dealing with a pawn, a rook or a bishop."

This happens in life too. We draw assumptions about co-workers, strangers, and friends based on their appearance until we get to know them for who they actually are. People who are obsessed with playing "the game of life" will treat bishops and rooks much different than they do pawns, to their [the person who treats people differently based on their assumed "status"] detriment of course.

A great author is able to 'bear witness' of reality well

"When we remark that a novel is 'finely observed,' we are praising the writer's ability to bear witness. This bearing witness is composed of two acts: the author's initial observation in the real world, and then the translation of that observation into prose. The more 'finely observed' the text, the better we readers recognize the thing or event in question."

Readers perform their books

"We perform a book--we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance. As readers, we are both the conductor of the orchestra, as well as the audience."

On Imagination

"Imagination is a turning-away from the mind-independent world. Imagination, you could say, is like an "inward eye."

Words work like keys, unlocking something special in the reader

"Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words 'contain' meaning, but, more important, words potentiate (increase the power or likelihood of) meaning..."


Every Friday, I send an email with insights, ideas, and stories from the books and articles I read. I promise you'll find something new and interesting to read every week.