How to chew a book

Of all the ancient and medieval modes of reading, the only one we’ve truly left behind is that which might be called the ‘digestive’ mode. To be sure, ‘The Reader’s Digest’ is still with us, but the digestive metaphor in its title is, quite simply, just a metaphor.

For the medieval reader, however, reading was quite literally a digestive process whereby the words were being ruminated in the mouth as the eyes gazed the text, before allowing the  memory to absorb them into appropriated images and concepts. In the words of a 12th-century scholar, words were ‘read and chewed’, which meant that the mouth moved in what today might be called sub-vocal, or whispered, reading. This practice is ‘enzymic’, transforming the words into absorbable nutriment, which can then find a place in the architectural structure of memory.

Like food feeding our body through digestion (the biochemical model), medieval reading is about ruminating (ruminatio is a key word when medieval authors discuss reading) the words so that they may be made ready for storage in the various compartments of memory. This might be called the digestive-architectural model of mnemonic reading.

Our age has lost this mode of ruminative reading. We read between the lines, we skim, scan, and develop techniques for improving our words-per-minute reading speed. There is not much place for slow or deep reading. And even when its advocates, like Sven Birkerts (the inventor of the term ‘deep reading’), point out how much gets lost in undigested reading, we still feel rumination is not an option, given the amount of information and knowledge available for absorption.

Interestingly, while we no longer subscribe to a ruminative reading model, our language still preserves its vocabulary in regards to reasoning. We ruminate an idea, we chew over the merits of an intellectual position, we mull over and stew about notions and opinions. We turn the browsed grass of the Web into an original idea or a solution.

We may be ready to devour some books, but we seem to have lost the patience to chew the cud of page after page after page.

 

 

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