How Deeply Do Readers Read?

“One hundred cord breaks and understanding shall arrive on its own.”

This is a Chinese proverb that dates from the era when books were written on sticks of split bamboo tied together side by side with cords to form a scroll. One stick carried one line of writing which you read top to bottom. If you read the scroll many times, the cord tying the sticks together will wear and eventually break, requiring a repair. If you had read the scroll so many times that the cord has broken one hundred times, understanding of its contents should come to you naturally. When my father first told me this proverb, he updated it and said it meant one hundred “spine breaks”, and that I should read a book so many times that the spine would break in half and needed repair one hundred times over. My first English dictionary and my first Japanese dictionary both went through a somewhat gentle version of this ordeal. They were held together with duct tape.

I grew up believing that this was the way books are supposed to be read. I cannot even begin to tell you how damaging this was to my reading habits and writing career. If you cannot understand the text after looking up the words in the dictionary, you are either reading something you are not ready to read, or a piece of nonsense. If you do not understand the historic background of a novel or do not know the cultural references in a story, you should put the book down and read something else. If it is not your lack of knowledge and you still cannot understand, then the book is crap.

Micro-reading of books never did humanity any good. It has caused numerous political conflicts and religious chaos. Almost all conspiracy theories are derived from over dissection of observable facts. Some unexplained lights seen in the sky is interpreted as space creatures on flying saucers, which is further associated with a secret conspiracy by shady government organizations. Words in a book can turn into those lights in the sky if you stare at them too hard.

Finally it has done disservice to the books themselves. Readers should stop “discovering” hidden messages in the Harry Potter books and J. K. Rowling should stop encouraging them. It has come to the point where it is subtracting from the mystique of the stories. Lewis Carroll’s books have been so thoroughly combed through, you cannot talk about them without risking an encounter with someone wanting to lecture you on some arcane psychobabble.

So now that I am telling myself to stop reading meanings into the books I am reading, a question has come up: How deeply should you expect your readers to read the books you write?

It is an article of faith among writers that you must respect your readers. Any cynicism on the part of the writer will be sensed by the reader. If you cut corners, your readers will know. If you are making your story more erotic than it needs to be under the assumption that it will make the book sell better, readers will likely catch on to the trickery. And if you insert Easter eggs of, say, references to Prez Prado’s Mambo No. 5 in your story, somebody will definitely pick up on it.

But at the same time, the majority of your readers will just skim over the boring parts. That is all parts that have nothing to do with sex, violence, romance, or offensive material. On average, only about a third to a half of the readers of any given book read all the way to the end. Only about a quarter of the readers finished Fifty Shades of Grey. Most readers do not read deeply. Most of them barely read at all.

Then there is the famous story of how everybody (including his biographer) misinterpreted Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It had become a matter of common knowledge that Fahrenheit 451 was a book about government censorship, and particularly about the political tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. So much so that when Bradbury finally announced in public that his book was about how television destroys interest in literature, people argued to his face that he was wrong. These readers, to their credit, read Bradbury’s book very deeply. Perhaps too deeply.

Our minds have a function called “agency detection”. It is that part of the imagination that gives meanings to things our senses do not completely capture. Maybe that creaking sound is just the old lumber of the house shrinking in the dry weather, or maybe it is a serial killer lurking in the basement. Maybe the rustling of the tall grass is just the wind, or a hungry wolf. We assign meanings to things we do not fully see or understand. That is the origin of superstition, some aspects of religion and/or paranoia.

The same agency detection also works with words. A computer programmer named Seb Pearce developed an instrument called the New Age Bullshit Generator which is a computer program that will produce a series of profound sounding messages which are actually meaningless. It’s great fun playing with it, but a serious student of cognitive psychology called Gordon Pennycock used this device to study the reactions of people to superficially profound-sounding series of words. Pennycock explains that the same agency detection that alerts us to wolves we cannot see in the rustling grass makes us believe that computer-generated nonsense is profound philosophy.

Long ago, another psychologist edited shots of an actor into the scenes of different movies. If the scene was sad, the viewers said the actor looked sad. If the scene was happy the viewers said he looked happy. In reality, the actor did not belong in the scene at all. He was taken from a footage in another movie. This demonstrated that we attribute meanings to things that we see. So how much of the brilliance we see in the actor’s craft is the work of the actor himself and how much of the credit should go to the film editor? And how much of it is due to our own minds?

The same question can be asked of books. Is the author really such a profound writer? Is the story really that good? Given that we read meanings into gobbledygook produced by a computer, the logical conclusion seems obvious. The author does not write meanings into the book. It is the reader who projects meanings into it. This is the reason it is never wise to make the underlying message or theme of your story too obvious. You must leave some room for the reader’s imagination, but not because the readers are smart enough to figure it out for themselves, it is to let them lend you the power of their agency detection.

It is human nature to feel insulted when our agency detection is exposed as being faulty. When that rustling actually wasn’t a wolf and that creaking wasn’t a serial killer, it makes us feel embarrassed, even humiliated. This is a necessary evolutionary product because next time it might be a wolf, and that bit of overactive imagination might save our lives. So we have a tendency to cling to our faulty beliefs, however irrational they may be. If we believe a book means something, we defend our beliefs, even to the extent of telling the author that his own interpretation is wrong.

And that is the precarious nature of literature. The reader, even when skimming through a book just gliding past the words, project meanings into the story that never appeared in print. The writer intentionally leaves gaps in the explanations to facilitate such participation. And this is not always a case of the reader figuring out the story for themselves, but often times stumbling over monsters in the woodwork that do not exist, or were never meant to.

I have come to accept that it is evidence of quality in a book if numerous crazy theories surround its interpretation. Ray Bradbury may have been frustrated when readers told him that he had the wrong interpretation of his own book, but that is what happens when you walk the tightrope of writer-reader collaboration competently. It is the inevitable result of stirring the reader’s mind. As writers, we have to live with that.

If you start micro reading, the author is no longer there to help you. You may be reading meanings into the text that does not exist. And that is why micro-reading can be dangerous.

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