I can listen to the radio and do something else at the same time. I can watch TV, in streaming or live, and I can do something else at the same time. While not focused 100% on the transmission, I can still get something out of it, even if I cook, hoover, chat with friends at the same time.
But when I sit down with a book, I can’t do anything else at the same time. Anything below 100% focus means nothing to me. My eyes move across and down the page, but I end up with absolutely nothing unless I do nothing else at the same time.
Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and other anthropologists of the written word have pointed out that reading is not just another way of ‘hearing’ or ‘seeing’, but a completely different kind of encounter, sui generis and in its own league, fundamentally different from all other types of cognition.
There are few other more forcibly lonely and intimate activities than silent reading, which is how we moderns do it. In history, silent reading is a recent arrival, though for the reader, whether alone in the room or in front of an audience, reciting from memory or reading from a piece of paper, the written word has always been a self-reflecting echo, shot out but not going anywhere, boomeranging its way back to the reader, trapped in the gravitational pull of the scanning eyes.
The word exists for your eyes only. To share it is to share oneself, to lend a piece of yourself with interest, hoping that the returns will return the word home, multiplied, enriched, like a radioactive isotope, glowing and unpredictable.
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