21 December 2013

like the railroad

Ahoy! J'essaie de l'essai.

Reading for fun is hard. I'm ok reading shampoo bottles (methylchloroisothiazolinone!) at a glance, but a few pages of pleasure prose can leave me unenlightened - or worse, stuck in an infinite reread loop. Ugh. (Commence irony!)

I'm not going to oppose the value of the particular nature of reading in school. I think that being taught to read with such high intensity and immense pressure is infinitely more valuable than not being exposed to literature at all. However, homework-style reading pretty consistently ruins people for quite some time after graduation! Students are forever driven to read at a breakneck pace while memorizing every detail, and it's hard to kick that habit.

I'm still in that stage. I never did master the speed aspect; I think speed and ridiculous attention to detail are inversely proportional, and reading quickly doesn't fetch any extra points on the test. (Note: efficiency does.) Thus, I've always been a slow reader, rereading sentences and paragraphs until I've essentially memorized whatever my eyeballs are scanning. One must hope to have mastered every banality when one's AP English teacher asks something as incredibly important as how many coils of rope lay in Santiago's boat on the The Old Man and the Sea exam...

I doubled down on the memorize-everything mandate when I opted to study math and computer science. There is so much rereading and stopping to think involved in learning math from a book - unlike Santiago's irrelevant rope organization, every detail is connected to everything else, including stuff from previous chapters and even earlier math education! Nothing like memorizing everything you've ever, ever read, just so you can hope to understand the next book.

The trick with this detail-oriented, internalize-everything reading methodology is that I like it! That is, I like it when I can do it on my own terms. It feels right to me to read carefully and spend time processing - one book at a time, with a break between books so they don't run together and I can commit thoughts to memory. Obviously my terms do not coincide with those of a "voracious" reader, or really even a "competent" one (regarding for-pleasure, that is). Like other things I do, though, I want to get something out of whatever I read. I want to learn something. I want to feel something. If nothing else, I want to be able to regurgitate a detail or two a week later. If I've read an entire book and gotten nothing out of it but hours taken off my lifespan, I could have conserved the eye strain and rotted in front of the TV instead.

Another significant trouble I have with the printed page is a bit of a pathological one: my mind wanders rampantly. There's so much stuff going on in direct proximity at any moment that I find it difficult to turn it all off and do something as seemingly-unproductive (note emphasis!) as reading a book for fun. In the K-12/uni days, there was always other homework. It did not help that almost everything I read for school was massively, epically uninteresting. In "the real world," thoughts of what I should be doing instead ruin most of what I do for pure pleasure. However, while it's easy to ignore those thoughts (or just multitask) when watching a show or chatting or playing a game, it's nigh impossible to read with any level of absorption when the page seems to say, "Once upon a time, there was a oh I need to reply to that email and it's almost time for my next scheduled medications and -- wait, what?" It's an affliction I surely can and should cure, but that hasn't happened yet.

I'm an awful traditional-style pleasure reader for various other reasons as well. For one, I'm terrible with internal vocalization - I read everything out loud in my head, which is the first thing you're taught to stop in order to read faster. Also, everyone knows I'm a linguist; I see spelling, grammar, syntax, semantics, and structure long before I extract the intended tales and imagery. There are just so many ways I can "read" something and claim nothing more than, "I have looked at every word on all of these pages!"

Audiobooks provide workarounds to many of my troubles. The big kicker for me is that an audiobook has a set pace with generally inconvenient backtracking. While many people can read faster than a narrator might speak (ahem, Morton Sellers), I generally can't. There's no need to read and then vocalize with a recording - it's already spoken for you, no eyeballs necessary. I can only imagine what an audiobook would be like if it was spoken how I would read it:

"Sarah walked the two miles through the fields to get to school every day. What was her last name again? This is the second page of chapter three. She sometimes stopped to play with the dog that lived by the -- remember, it's Sarah. I wonder how long it will take to read the rest of this. She lives on a farm. This author wrote something else about economics in South Africa; I should look that up. Wait, so Sarah walked the two miles..."

No, an audiobook plods along, and the extraneous pondering and meta-lit necessarily stay out of the way. Often I have to [want to] listen to a chunk again, but backtracking is tedious enough that I don't, for example, go over every sentence five times in a row. This most effectively manifests itself when I plan to go to sleep listening to a book - I play audio from my phone via a Bluetooth speakerphone (nerrrd!), and while I can skip around track by track using voice control, I can't do anything like "rewind thirty seconds" that would enable me to obsess.

Another anthropomagically appealing audiobook aspect is the allure of the spoken word. Humans inherently focus on and cogitate speech more than other stimuli; on the other end of the spectrum, we generally place reading at the bottom of the focus list. Just think of where your brain tends to go when you're trying to read something - anything - and someone's having even the most inane conversation in the history of humanity in the next room. That gripping chapter doesn't always clench very tightly. I won't attempt to approach the roots of this phenomenon (really, jl, the only topic you dodge here is the lone interesting one?), but the simplicity of attention and focus involved is quite apparently increased over that of the eyes+letters method of consumption. Listening to something read aloud is almost like cheating, slacking off compared to putting in the effort to read the same material as well. Based on no rigorous research or in-depth knowledge whatsoever, I think it actually is easier to listen - the brain's circuitry has been evolutionarily(!) optimized for speech recognition, and there are simply fewer (and again, more efficient) processing steps involved on the path from sound to thoughts/meaning than when starting with visually-perceived printed characters. This is where I skip over computational models of thought and move on to the next paragraph.

One last bit to mention is that people simply like being read to. Remember childhood? So, summarily, audiobooks are lovely for those like me with, umm, "alternative pleasure-reading styles." They force a steady pace, and they're arguably easier to pay attention to and process. Seashells and butterflies, everyone can be a bookworm! Right? Right?!?!!

Ah, if only. There are indeed some gripes of varying degree pointed toward the conversion of text to speech. The most common, ostensible complaint I'm aware of is about the thief of imagination: the preset narrator. Especially considering internal vocalizers like me, readers like to assign their own "actors" to characters in a book. Material takes on an extra level of personalization and individuated charm when everyone [mentally] maintains a perfectly imperial inflection for each reader. There's no such luck on individual creative license when listening to someone else's performance; the larynx-provider become the narrator, and that person's possibly-awful impersonations of characters' voices predefine those personas for you. This is the worst with computer-generated TTS - it's like going to see one of your favorite musicals... performed entirely by Siri. (Ok, not exactly, because that would likely be hilarious.)

Big Audiobook Problem Number Two comes with the territory when you've opted to consume a book without looking at the words: you're not looking at the words. Hear a word or line you don't understand? Wonder about a person mentioned whom you don't recognize? Need to use proper names in a response paper? Tough rocks, c'est dommage, and enjoy that F. There's a learning gap when you're coasting strictly on phonetics. This ambiguity really gets to me, as I'm rather obsessive about familiarizing myself with odd words ("seneschal") and people ("Goebbels") I encounter. With an audiobook, this means either admitting defeat (boo!) or spending quite a bit of time digging up a copy of the book and running over page after page to find a single word. Regarding that last point, audiobooks are sadly just a bad idea in the world of academics. For shame. In general, though, does the lack of visual recognition make audiobooks occasionally tedious? Indeed. Are they still worth it? Quite.

Before I wrap up, let me remind you (potential employers, admissions counselors and educators!) that this has all been about reading for fun. I chose particular wording all over the place to establish that, but let's crank the point to maximum clarity. Hopefully it's obvious as well that I read critically for content by default. So, please hire/accept me!

Another note: I do read quite a bit. Novel forms of writing need not be in novel form.

So, um, there you go! An answer without a question; a response without a call. Nihilism at its finest (go read about it).