Recorded 9 June 2019
Quotes taken from online preview of Thomas McLaughlin’s book Reading and the Body, the Physical Practice of Reading
“Reading appears to be a disembodied, purely mental act. The avid reader seems lost in a textual world, cut off from the life of the body and the real world that surrounds it. This image of the reader is derided in adolescent popular culture in the figure of the nerd with his nose in the book, wearing thick glasses and unfashionable clothes, oblivious to the social and physical surround, physically inept, and asexual. However, the assumption that reading is disembodied also pervades literary and cultural theory. We routinely define reading as an act of consciousness—a matter of cognition, emotion, or spirituality—all traditionally and implicitly cast as the sheer opposite of the gross physical body.” p.9
Case in point in Cosmos: In the Clean Language session John led with Doug and TJ, when they are reading at their best, they perceived this as ultimately a headspace ordeal. Neither Doug nor TJ described sensations within the body or the “bodily act” of reading.
“But reading is undeniably a bodily act. Eyes scan the page, hands hold the book, body postures align the entire musculoskeletal frame around the visual and manual requirements of reading, adapting to the materiality of the book and to the physical space the reading body inhabits. Somatic habits develop, integrating reading into the daily life of the body. We read as we eat, as we fall asleep, as we ride the subway, and as we lie on the beach. These bodily procedures and habits have not been factored into our understanding of the work of the reader. Until recently, literary theory has tacitly framed the act of reading within a simple body/mind dualism, ignoring the eyes and hands, the postures and habits of reading, and denying any connection between the transcendent life of the reading mind and the immanent life of the body. The entry of cognitive and neural sciences into the conversation of literary theory has complicated this dualism, forcing theorists to recognize the physicality of the brain and nervous system, where mind and consciousness seem embodied, but the gross physical body still resides on the other side of the dualism, outside our analysis of the practice of reading. p. 9
“The practice of reading makes procedural demands on the reading body. The eyes must move across the page in disciplined but flexible leaps, and the hands must grasp and manipulate the book so the eyes can do their work. These physical tasks must be taught and learned, at first quite consciously, so the novice reader can get physical access to the text, but eventually they must become unconscious, so the reader can focus on cognitive work. That is, the practice must become embodied and thus “absent” from conscious awareness.”
No reading required for this Cafe, though you may find yourself reflecting on your body as you read. The act of reading is part of the “cognitive unconsciousness”. The body is profoundly involved in the mental act of reading. The acquisition and operation of the cognitive unconscious is a social process in which the values and beliefs of the society become embodied through everyday practice.
Take the opportunity this weekend to note a day in the life of the reader, yourself. How do you read? Where do you read? Where is your body when you read?
Are you reading from a book in hand or from a desktop or handheld computational device? Or both?
Where are you when reading at your best? Alone? At a Cafe? At a desk or in bed? Sitting up or lying down?
- What does it mean to read in a digital age? Does the format of the text make a difference? How does the body respond to the digital experience? the analog experience?
- We bring our solitary readings to the forum . . . how can we best take what we have read are bring this into the world?
- How does culture shape how we read? Does the Western “reading imaginary” omit some aspects of “reading at our best?” Does it make a difference if we read right to left or left to right?
- What happens when we practice heart reading, when we are guided by the heart and gut? When we place our reading focus outside of the head and into “feeling”?* How does one embody a text?
- What does it mean to read a text collectively? To have collective bodies reading a text? What happens when we practice reading aloud to ourselves or with others? What happens to reading when it is performed?
- When reading at your best, it is like what?
Context, Backstory, and Related topics
- Check ins
- Reflect upon reading and the body