Situated Reading

* Anežka Kuzmičová, Patrícia Dias, Ana Vogrinčič Čepič, Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund, André Casado, Marina Kotrla Topić, Xavier Mínguez López, Skans Kersti Nilsson, and Inês Teixeira-Botelho, ‘Reading and Company: Embodiment and Social Space in Silent Reading Practices’, Literacy, 52 (2018), 70-7.
* Anežka Kuzmičová, ‘Does it Matter Where You Read? Situating Narrative in Physical Environment’, Communication Theory, 26 (2016) 290–308.

I mentioned the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Conference (back in July) in my last post, and in this one (and the next) I’ll be featuring the work of another scholar I heard there: Anežka Kuzmičová, whose homepage is here. In this post I cover two papers in which she and her collaborators consider the importance of location to the experience of reading.

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The first, from the journal Literacy, reports findings about readers’ interactions with their environments, and especially the presence of other people and the nature of their ‘concurrent activity’. The researchers were interested in whether subjects chose their reading matter (‘text type, purpose, device’) and the location of that reading, in relation to one another. What emerged was ‘varied, and partly surprising’ sensitivity to the social nature of the reading space and the company therein. I like the emphasis on what they call the ‘daily efforts to align body with mind for reading’, and the idea that there is often a degree of ‘conscious curation’ (i.e. we think about the suitability of space for book, and book for space).
      The subjects of the experiments were young adults, and this leads to various possible implications. For example, they suggest that classroom environments may affect and suit some more than others, and that libraries seem to be a ‘vital type of social space for study reading’ which should survive the digital revolution. In general the idea is that understanding these younger readers requires an awareness of specific social spaces and individuals’ responses to them. However, it made me think a bit about the more professionalised sort of reading that literary study at all levels tends to build on and assume. Perhaps this is just a part of adult reading, which is more abstracted from social life, but perhaps this professional reading has its own forms of environmental awareness, which could also be considered.

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The piece in Communication Theory also discusses the situated nature of reading. It opens with a good point that in general the idea that language interacts with its environment is accepted, but ‘narrative reading… is primarily regarded as a means of decoupling one’s consciousness from the environment’. Traditionally, stimuli from the environment around the reader have been thought of as distractions, but Kuzmičová adds two further contributions that the environment can make to the reading experience: it can act as (i) ‘a prop for mental imagery’, and (ii) ‘a locus of pleasure more generally’. The point is, we draw on the places we are in to help support and supplement and fill out what’s created between mind and body and text.
      Kuzmičová draws two conclusions from this. First, our understanding of reading needs to bear in mind that environments matter. Second — a subset of the first but with particular pointedness — experiments on reading need to address the environments in which their subjects perform reading. Perhaps the formal laboratory setting cannot replicate the consequences of reading in typically richer situations; indeed, ‘the most natural consequence of adopting an environmentally situated approach to reading would be to move the experiment outside controlled settings altogether’. From where I sit, discipline-wise, this might validate a micro-historicist approach to reading, an attempt to reconstruct the social and physical contexts in which specific books were held and looked at, by specific readers we choose to prioritise. That’s quite a daunting task, not easy to do well. (I am thinking of interactive museum-type-things here, with rudimentary animatronics and authentic smells…)
      Next post: more good stuff from Anežka Kuzmičová! But further down the line, I expect to come back to this issue of individuals and particulars in cognition more generally, as well as in reading. In criticism and in science the turn to the general (what humans do, what ‘readers’ do) is so important, and yet when we know how these interactions between unique humans and unique settings can affect the reading process, it looks like a fraught step.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

2 thoughts on “Situated Reading

  1. Devani Singh

    Dear Raphael,
    Many thanks for this post and these ideas. Though this leaves us in fraught territory, it’s reassuring that these findings seem to echo what some critics (e.g. Hackel) have been arguing for a while now about microhistory and its relevance to historical readers.

    These studies also brought to mind a question I’ve been thinking about recently, viz ‘does it matter (to the memory of the experience) what format you read?’. For instance octavo vs folio, or paperback vs hardback, but also print vs digital copy. I have a suspicion that the way my brain remembers the experience of reading a novel on a tablet differs substantially from how it remembers what it was like to read a work in print. But if I read enough novels that way, might I begin to associate the tablet with this pleasurable experience? In other words, might reading on my tablet actually change how I feel about that technology? (All theoretical: I’ve gone back to traditional books for now!)

    Reply
    1. Raphael Post author

      Thanks for this — very interesting. I remember hearing an interesting paper by Anne Mangen (Stavanger) who has published several essays on paper versus screen. I also once blogged about an essay by Felix Sprang (here) which suggested that we could do fascinating microhistories of individual readers, but we’d better be careful generalising from them.

      Reply

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