Information Sheet # 146

October 26, 2004


[Since the Teaching/Learning forum "Did You Do the Reading?" is scheduled for later this week, it seemed an appropriate moment to offer a few observations on the topic of reading. These commentaries particularly emphasize possible reading/writing connections, thinking of reading as a process of rewriting and translating a text into the reader's personal language. -Bob Marrs]

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. . . . Yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to. [Henry David Thoreau, "Reading," Walden]

Writing is the act of creative reading. [Mina Shaughnessy]

The concern for getting the right meaning, for memory, a concern at the center of most reading labs and study skills centers, puts students in an impossible position. . . . Their obsessive concern over the fact that they don't remember everything they read, their concern to dig out the right answers, their despair over passages that seem difficult or ambiguous, all of these are symptoms of a misunderstanding of the nature of texts and the nature of reading that must be overcome if students are to begin to take charge of the roles they might play in a university classroom. [David Bartholomae, "Wandering: Misreadings, Miswritings, Misunderstandings" in Only Connect, Boynton/Cook 1986]

Even before I decide to read a book, I have not only certain expectations, shaped by my generic acquaintance with the kind of book I have selected from a great many available books, but quite probably some more specific assumptions about the chosen book itself. . . . Even when I pick up a new book by an unknown author on a whim, I am better informed about it than I might suspect. This information (which may well turn out to have been misleading) is derived from where the book in question is sold (in a discount bookstore chain, a small specialty bookseller's, or the airport newsstand); from the books that immediately surround it (current best-sellers, mysteries, fiction, science fiction); from the title; from the book jacket; and quite likely from a general impression gained by quickly glancing through the pages. [Matei Calinescu, Rereading, Yale UP 1993. Calinescue later suggests that reading a book is actually an act of rereading as we engage with a text to confirm or deny or amend our expectations. Since students will preread an assigned text with a predisposition quite different from the instructor's, it's inevitable that they will often interpret the text with different insights and conclusions. The students may be reading to confirm an expectation that the assigned book will be boring and of no practical value-an expectation readily sustained with minimal effort or evidence.]

When we consider what transpires in an act of composing from sources, we might first envision a two-step procedure, reading and then writing. If we did so, however, we would be ignoring the influence that writing can have on the reading process-an influence so strong that boundaries between the two processes tend to blur. When writers compose from sources, reading and writing processes blend, making it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what is being done for purposes of reading from what is being done for purposes of writing. Although we see evidence of organizing, selecting, and connecting, we often cannot say whether a writer performs a certain operation to make meaning of the text that is read or to make meaning for the text that is being written. . . .


Suppose a social historian, a specialist in working-class history, is writing a piece on why the American working class did not generate a strong socialist movement. She is using as a source one of the manifestos issued in conjunction with the railroad strikes of 1877. Then suppose a sportswriter freelancing for a sports magazine is writing an article comparing the run-and-shoot offense in football with the more traditional wishbone offense and is drawing some information from Ellison's Run and Shoot Football: The Offense of the Future. And finally, suppose a sophomore taking a course in developmental psychology is writing a research paper on the topic of autism, using an article from the journal Child Development. These writers approach their sources with ideas about their own texts, however well formed or ill formed those ideas may be, that include possible ways of organizing meaning. The historian may supply causal frames not used in the text as she reads her primary sources. The sportswriter may begin building contrastive patterns when reading about the run-and-shoot offense and relating it to the other offense. And the student may be set merely to find, in this source as in the others he is using, a collection of major subtopics, such as etiology and treatment, around which to organize the report he is writing. We cannot say whether the organization that the writer imposes on the text content is associated with the reading process or the writing process; it is associated with both. The writer, when reading, is also selecting as well as organizing; he or she most likely attends selectively to content with potential relevance to the text being written, even though that content may not be what is given most emphasis in the text. This selectivity, like organization, is an aspect of both reading and writing. In addition to organizing and selecting while reading the courses, the writer also connects textual content with what he or she already knows, generating content that adds to, that goes beyond, the content explicitly cued by the text. The writer, when reading, makes inferences, elaborations, perhaps thinking of examples or counterexamples, arguing with a particular point. This generative process can be thought of as inferential and elaborative processing for reading, but it can also be considered an invention process for writing. The content generated becomes part of the mental representation of potential meaning for the piece that will be written and may become part of the actual text itself. [Nancy Nelson Spivey, "Transforming Texts," Written Communication, April 1990]

What's a book? Everything or nothing. The eye that sees it is all. [Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, 1834.]

My argument is that our comprehension of texts, whether they are literary or not, is more an act of composition-for understanding is composing-than of information retrieval, and that the best possible representation of our understandings of texts begins with certain kinds of compositions, not multiple-choice tests or written free responses. . . . I think there is compelling evidence to support the claim that comprehension is heavily subjective and is a function of the reader's prior knowledge, the text, and the context. I also think we can argue that we compose as we comprehend, and that our composition arises from these same factors: the text, our affective and cognitive frameworks (or prior knowledge), and the context for reading. When we put together our comprehension-however consciously or unconsciously-the "putting together" is more an act of composition than of information retrieval. And if, as I argue, comprehension is heavily dependent on these three factors, then a convincing representation of it must focus on how they enter into our responses as public statements derived from private experience. To see how we do this, we can and should turn to extended written response to texts. If we take this stance toward comprehension, then it is not enough for readers to demonstrate their comprehension by saying what they perceive in texts. . . . they have to explain why they see what they do by explicating the forces that drive their discussions, because they often see things differently for legitimate reasons. The authority for their explanation comes, then, from the personal associations (that is, from their prior knowledge)-the thoughts and feelings they generate in response to what they read-that flesh out their connections to the texts and from textual evidence. [Anthony R. Petrosky, "From Story To Essay: Reading and Writing," College Composition and Communication, February 1982]

In her essay "Textual Interpretation as Collective Action," Elizabeth Long points out that similar to the modernist image of the writer as "solitary scribbler" (180), representations of the reader, too, have often shown this figure as located most appropriately within the realm of private life. The solitary reader has a "complex iconographic history" and images abound of the isolated, erudite scholar or philosopher who has withdrawn from worldly pursuits, or, as women gained access to literacy, of the female reader encompassed by the interior and domestic space of the home and the family circle. Long contends that these images "not only oppose reading to sociability," they also tie specific kinds of literacy to gender (i.e., woman as frivolous and passive consumer; man as serious and contemplative creator of culture). [This perception of reading] as a fundamental solitary practice suppresses the collective nature of making meaning from text. Long reminds us that a "social infrastructure" is needed to support and sustain reading practice within literate communities: first, that reading must be taught; and second, that "socialization into reading always takes place within specific social relationships." Reading, then, although intensely private in many ways, is socially framed: "Collective and institutional processes shape reading practices . . . defining what is worth reading and how to read it." [Lizabeth Rand, "Reading as a Site of Spiritual Struggle," in Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms, Lawrence Erlbaum 2003]

The particular importance of network textuality-that is, textuality written, stored, and read on a computer network--appears when technology transforms readers into reader-authors or "wreaders," because any contribution, any change in the web created by one reader, quickly becomes available to other readers. The ability to write within a particular web in turn transforms comments from private notes, such as one takes in margins of one's own copy of a text, into public statements that, specially within educational settings, have powerfully democratizing effects. [George P. Landow, Hyper/Text/Theory, Johns Hopkins University Press 1994]

A Reading/Writing Assignment

Each week during the term, in preparation for class discussion, you will write a 750-1500 word "difficulty paper." These papers, posted to our Blackboard forum, will identify and explore the reasons why a particular passage in a reading assignment was difficult to understand and interpret. These assignments are typically due on Friday mornings, to be posted at least two hours prior to class. Before our Friday classes, I will read everyone's postings and select two or three essays to serve as starting points for our in-class discussions. My hope is that as you compose these essays, you will discern that a difficulty with a text does not represent your inabilities but rather reveals how texts often place on readers challenging organizational or stylistic or contextual or content demands. Our responsibility as readers is to find ways to bridge these textual "gaps," to complete these texts so we can make sense of what we are encountering. These difficulty papers ask you to focus on moments when you encounter challenging, thought-provoking gaps-which can on occasion inspire us to create new meanings and see our subjects in new ways.

[This assignment was adapted from a similar assignment in "Reading Matters for Writing" by Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori]

"Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man;
and writing an exact man." [Francis Bacon, "Of Studies"]


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