The Sounds of Reading

One of the most interesting things about Twitter (aside from how my Twitter feed is a lethal book recommendation engine that is going to financially ruin me) is how I’ll occasionally bring up a topic I thought was simple and taken for granted, and I am very quickly proven wrong.

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ABOVE: A literal photo of the inside of some of your heads.

That kinda sounds like sarcasm, but it really isn’t. I love discovering depths in a topic I didn’t previously know had any.

For instance: A simple chat about audiobooks and what some of us enjoy or dislike lead to us discussing full-cast audiobooks. Someone mentioned not liking them because the actors’ voices wound up replacing the internal voices they had already established in their head. This led to us discussing what exactly happens inside our heads when we read, and this is where I thought the topic was simple. Instead, I was very, very wrong.

Reading is pretty silent inside of my own head. My eyes scan the words and my brain processes the meaning, and…that’s it. There’s nothing more complex happening with me. I thought everyone worked like that, ’til I put the question out to Twitter and got an awful lot of varied feedback.

The most common thing people said happens in their heads when reading is that they hear a voice. It’s there own voice, reading the book, and it’s the equivalent of the method and speed of you reading out loud…but internally. An internal rather than external voice.

There were other responses, too. Some people told me that they wind up mentally assigning a host of voices to all of the lines of dialog and bits of narration, until the inside of their heads are nearly full-cast audiobooks all by themselves. A few other people told me that they didn’t read the story internally, per se, but they did wind up mentally converting it almost into a movie of sorts.

This is all fascinating to me, the idea of such variety occurring when all of us are doing the exact same thing, which is staring at a bunch of words and gleaning a narrative from them. It also makes sense out of a lot of complaints I’ve heard from readers over the years but have never thought about. I never considered that the reason someone might dislike a movie is because the depiction of the character on the screen is just too different from the way that character was constructed in the reader’s mind. I have no experience with that. When I dislike a movie, it’s generally because I find it a stupid movie, not because I think it failed to be consistent with my experience of the book.

This also leaves me with a range of questions which I’ll present but which I have absolutely no answers for.

For one thing, are different methods faster? I have a hunch that my own method – with no internal voice and, really, very little internal translation happening between me reading the words and my brain processing them – might be a faster way to read certain books. Some people read on a word by word level (you read THIS > THEN > THIS > THEN > THIS) and some people read on a sentence level, and some people even seem to digest on a paragraph level. I would posit that people who have an internal voice probably go word by word in a linear fashion, whereas readers who read on a sentence level (as I do) probably have no internal voice.

(I want to add here that I don’t think any method is better or worse than any other. This isn’t a sport, or a competition, and as long as you enjoy the books you read, then any speed or method is as perfect as any other.)

I also wonder if different methods of reading lend themselves better to different topics. I’m aware that I read most fiction very, very quickly, but dense works of nonfiction (even when I have no difficulty understanding it) slow me way down. I adore Dickens biographies, but I read them pretty slowly. I wonder if having an internal narrating voice would speed that up, or help with comprehension of more difficult-to-understand topics?

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Hipster Readers sit right next to the lamp, but still use a candle.

There’s also a scientific issue which I’m curious about which is, how much of this is something you are randomly inclined toward, and how much of it originates based on the method with which you were originally taught to read? Some people are taught word-recognition (this word looks like THIS and therefore THIS sound-and-meaning) and some people are taught to sound out the word on a letter, or syllable basis. Does this have any effect? Another scientific thing I wonder is, do people change methods variously throughout their lives?

As you can see, it’s nearly a bottomless topic, and it’s made all the more exciting for me because it was birthed out of an innocent conversation in which I didn’t know there was anything deeper. It’s exciting like stepping into a sidewalk puddle only to discover it’s actually a mile-deep watery abyss!

Look, you would be very excitable if that happened, that’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, now I want to hear from you, oh lovely and discerning BookRiot reader: when you are sitting with a book in hand and your eyeballs are tractor-beaming words into your brain, what’s happening inside your head? A voice, a full cast, a movie, nothing at all, something else entirely? What? I would very much love it if you all went to the comment section below this article and drastically expanded my study sample size. Tell me everything.

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