It was Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf that got me thinking about the peculiar mechanics of reading, how artificial it is to translate little black squiggles into sentences and stories. If you’re having trouble picturing how much acquired skill it takes to read, see what your brain can do with Farsi

or Diwani.

I bring this up as I embark on (reading, not writing) a new novel. Not your modern whoosh whoosh sort of book, where by the end of the first paragraph you’ve had two sex scenes, a decapitation and a werewolf. This novel (written in 1934) is very long, has very tiny type, and starts very slowly.

It (and Maryanne Wolf) made me think about the process of entering a book. 

The book begins as an inanimate object. A brick of paper full of black squiggles. If it has a beautiful cover, you may feel anticipation and excitement. But basically, it’s a foreign thing. A blank in your head.

As you begin to read, a hint of colour seeps in. A character emerges. You hear his voice. See where she’s standing. What he’s wearing. They move, become (to your brain) real people.

Slowly (in the case of John Cowper Powys) or instantly (ala Robert Harris) your book undergoes a strange transformation as it ceases to be a mere object.

The next time you pick it up, it’s full of moving pictures, scenes, stories, people whose faces reside clearly in your head, locations you would recognize in real life. When you open your book now, it’s a place, not a thing — even when you’re not reading your book, sheep graze in it, politicians argue, lovers kiss.

When I try to think of why people should read books (should they?) it’s this I come back to. This transformative thing that happens in your brain when you read a book. It’s magic.

It is, of course, harder work than turning on the television and absorbing someone else’s pictures. But it makes your brain feel good in a strange and abstract way that, if I were a neuroscientist, I might begin to understand.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with the magic.

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13 thoughts on “How read? Why read?

  1. Marta 4 years ago

    Those lines are magic. Your eyes scan a few lines and images come to your mind and feelings in your heart–assuming the magician knows what she’s doing.

    I liked your thoughts on the written word–and I’m now interested in this Proust and Squid story.

  2. jackie 4 years ago

    This is a piece of beauty. I do love the alchemy of reading. And somehow still I would rather read a book than watch a film, or hear a story read aloud to me.

  3. Jongleuse 4 years ago

    I enjoyed that book too. I like Poulets theories on how the barriers of consciousness between reader and author are lifted during the Reading transaction ‘you are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside

  4. Nicola Morgan 4 years ago

    I’m a big fan of Proust and the Squid – I refer to it in talks I do on the psychology/neuroscience of fiction. It’s a v thought-provoking book.

  5. Charlie Cornelius 4 years ago

    I love the way, also, that once you become absorbed the squiggles seem to disappear. Our ability to see beyond them to the things, people, places, and emotions they conjure really is magical.

  6. Elv 4 years ago

    Which Cowper Powys are you reading? I love the deep strangeness of Wolf Solent – and that’s a relatively normal novel by his standards.

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      Weymouth Sands. And loving it….

  7. Catdownunder 4 years ago

    I love the mystery of the mechanics of reading.
    For strange scripts though I love Tibetan. It is so elegant.
    (And have you ever come across Blissymbols? – a sort of written Esperanto.)

  8. Barbaroos 4 years ago

    Dear Meg, in the past I followed your weblog and I’ve read almost all of your books. I love them! I try to write myself, not succeeded too well in that yet. Because of family hectics I lost your weblog out of sight. Today I took up on reading it again and yes, I am hooked again. Thank you for being such an inspiration.

  9. Sheya 4 years ago

    Hi Meg, I am Sheya and I was a Trowse Girl in this film! The experience of filming was just simply amazing! Look out for me in the army truck scenes! I am the girl with the ginger braid (my hair is very similar to Harley’s!) and a wooly hat! I also was lucky enough to meet Saoirse Ronan and Harley Bird! They are both very nice to work with! I am currently reading your book at the moment; it is simply amazing! So well-written!!!!

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      Nice to meet you Sheya. I’ll look for you!

  10. Sheya 4 years ago

    Thank you!! I am very excited to see the film and I am really looking forward to when it comes out! However I might not be able to watch it in the cinema as it could be a higher certificate than my age!

  11. Simon 3 years ago

    How weird – I’ve just been thinking about how it’s curious that Austen can make you fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet when there’s no there there – it’s just words on a page, but you capture it: magical, indeed.

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