Perception and the History of Reading

“The keenest of our senses is our sense of sight”- CICERO

What does it mean to read? Nowadays, the answer might seem obvious. Reading begins with sight. One looks at a page and from that page a new idea, place or story bursts free. Of course we understand that reading and sight are inherently linked but centuries ago humans began to study the relationship between the eye and the page. The link between seeing and reading inspired anatomical advances, cultural and philosophical revolutions.

Today, we understand that seeing and comprehending aren’t synonymous. Reading fits into this notion because it requires comprehension and sight. It requires deciphering, analysis. When a child picks up blocks representing letters of the alphabet they see shapes but perhaps struggle to understand the shapes’ meanings. But as the child begins to understand that the shape represents something more, they may start moving the blocks around. In the same way that writing requires construction, reading relies on deconstruction.

I recently read “A History of Reading” by Alberto Manguel wherein Manguel introduces the reader to optical evolutions. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, put forth the idea that fiery light streams from the eye making objects visible. Over a century later, Epicurus built on this idea. He proposed that these flames were in fact sheaths of atoms that ascended from the surface of a given object, thereby entering the eye. Of course these theories were riddled with enigmas. Various philosophers and physicians sought to solve these riddles. Perhaps my favourite theory is that of a Greek physician named Galen. Galen claimed that human senses fed into a general repository. This repository, often called the “common sense,” held memory, fantasy, knowledge and dreams. The medieval idea that the brain was compartmentalized is, actually, quite brilliant.

While a relationship between one’s ability to read and the physical eye grew all the more apparent, Ibn al-Haytham (known to the West as Alhazen), established himself as the father of modern optics. Born in 965 AD in Basra (Iraq), the scientist distinguished between “seeing” and “reading.” He explained that one’s perception of the outside world reached conclusions by drawing on our faculty of judgment. He followed Aristotelian arguments that what we see enters the eye through the air, but Alhazen pushed farther and highlighted the difference between “sensation” and “perception.” The first is involuntary. For instance, we might feel cold, or warm. But the second requires recognition. To take note, for instance, of how snow melts in one’s hand. In the 1980’s, Dr. Merlin C. Wittrock wrote: “to comprehend a text we not only read it, in the nominal sense of the word, we construct a meaning for it.” Alhazen laid the groundwork for Wittrock’s 20th century claim.

Of course our relationship to books has changed as well. It’s no coincidence that some people prefer to curl up by a fire with a hard-copy book instead of, say, a Kobo e-reader. The method of reading can inform our perception. I know that I tend to read PDF documents time after time, reaching the bottom of the page with little understanding. This is because I drift off. I see the words on the document but struggle to process them. Give me a book, however, and I’ll happily read for hours. The brain is a truly curious organ.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun to notice trends in how I read. For instance, I might seek out an article to further support an idea that’s come to me and the sheer fact of my “seeking” that article is likely to inform my ensuing perception of it. The way in which I deconstruct the text’s meaning is shaped by my excavating. This has been going on for ages. Slavery, for example, was long defended because the word “slave” exists in the Bible. Surely scripture did not intend to facilitate mass kidnappings or treacherous migrations but in that act of deciphering, which we’ve established as perception, we interpret.

eyesWhile writing this, I did some additional research on Alhazen and found the following picture. How strange, I thought to myself, that in researching the difference between sight and reading, I find an incredibly beautiful image that is, to me, indecipherable. I could draw meaning based on the fact that I, 1-Google searched it and 2- could interpret the illustration. But in this scenario, my perception was informed by context. If I’d found a flyer floating through the streets with the same image I’d likely have found myself feeling rather confused. Alas! Perception is informed by a great many things.

So here I leave you to ponder what reading means to you. What you read, why you read, where and how you read… Such strange questions to ask yourself and yet the answers might surprise you.



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