Thursday 2 December 2010

The soothingness of words

The other day I came into the kitchen at breakfast-time to find Livia, aged 7, reading the comment page in the newspaper. Though I know she's a good reader I did find this a bit surprising as she's only just graduated from  Rainbow Fairies (boo! hiss!). Just to see if she was really reading it, I said something too her. Her finger went out to mark her place on the page as she raised her head to speak to me. Yes, she was definitely reading the words. Did she have any idea what she was reading? By the time she got up from the table I was involved in something else and so I didn't ask. Only later when I ran my eyes over the same page, left open on the table, while I ate my lunch did I stop to wonder what she had got from reading something that almost certainly meant very little to her.

In a book I am reading at the moment (The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers), someone says 'Reading is an intelligent way of not having to think.' I agree with this, but only partly. Ideally, a person reads and thinks at the same time; he is engaged with the reading matter. However to be truly engaged involves pushing all one's other thoughts to the background of the mind. That's what makes reading is such a useful way of passing travelling time and why it's such a good thing to do before sleeping (except for those occasions when the book is so gripping you can't stop thinking about it after you turn the light out). I can't see why anyone who can read would ever need to meditate. It's easy to empty your mind if you can fill it with someone else's words.

As for Livia's breakfast-time reading matter, I think this is the other side of the same idea. A reading person with an empty mind (as it often is at breakfast time) may find that their eyes simply latch onto words that they see. I don't suppose for one moment that Livia picked up the newspaper and selected the comment page to read. It was just there and eyes rested on it and then she did what she always does with words, she followed them across the page. I do it all the time: words leap out at me, notices, labels, road signs, poems on the Underground (what a great idea). I can still quote the message printed on the sanitary bags on the back of the school loo doors. On holiday in Crete this summer, I found the Greek alphabet desperately frustrating because it took such an effort to remember which shape had which sound and so to decipher the words. Of course I didn't need to do this. It was quite clear what all the words meant, as everything was written in English too, and German and something Scandinavian. But the words were there and were calling out to be read, and the fact that they weren't giving me their message felt like they were bombarding me with their crypticness.


  1. Fascinating and there's a lot to be read on the neurology of the mind on this matter. It is odd, isn't it, how words jump from a page or screen. With students and when completing exam reading tasks, answers leap from texts, at times.
    There are a lot of theories that seem to make sense about our innate knowledge or inherited knowledge that suggest there is another sense or another via of knowledge. Perhaps Livia has an ability that comes directly from you or Robert or you both that she was born with? Without using a dictionary, she will learn many thousands of words. It is incredible how little we use dictionaries, really. As a kid, I hardly ever did and yet I acquired a lexical knowledge. I really like those odd letters in Greek and am really interested in cyrillic script in the Russian alphabet.
    When I lived in São Paulo, Christiane and I went to a Japanese fair, everything Japanese and from my third language, Portuguse written alongside the Japanese 'symbols', I could see for example, chicken, which is frango in Portuguese, alongside frango was the Japanese symbol for it and suddenly I saw it, it is a picture of a butchers with a chicken carcass hanging from the ceiling, chicken in Japanese. I got really excited but Chris couldn't see it. Then I could see beef and pork in Japanese too.
    I like your meditation analogy as we can kind of remove ourselves from the real world, almost travel through reading, into another state of consciousness. I think musicians do the same thing and dancers, sometimes when I'm writing it is similar, like you go elsewhere. Often, when some of us are totally focussed on a task we don't hear everything around us, we filter our senses away from others, listening, touch etc and zoom in on visual and almost go into the authors' created world. well, at least, I do. Hehehe. Just finished Michael Ondaatje's 'Anil's Ghosts' and say it is a must read. Just loved it and am going to take extracts to teach from. Claire, next time you speak with Matt or Helen, please tell them about it too. You know, he is Sri Lankan and this book is his novel on the civil war. It really is brilliant.

  2. Interesting meditation! Agree, partially - some books are nice-big-duvet ones, where you can rest your mind for a while, but of course I find myself with the spiky-twig-bed ones which require so much application I have to have a brain-rest after a chapter.
    Big debate to be had here about whether language is thought, and could thought exist without language, but hey, it's cold and nearly Christmas!

    I'm with Livia though. Comments page is the first place I go to in the newspaper.

  3. Ed - might have to do another whole blog on my feelings about dictionaries. Recently trying to explain to some kids that you can't just look up a word in an English French dictionary and go for the first one on the list. why? they say. here we go, I think, dismayed by their ignorance.

    Titus - I pretty much only read the book and film reviews unless trapped with no other reading matter!


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