I am still playing various forms of catch-up after attending Readercon this past weekend, but I wanted to share something that I will write more about later. On Saturday I led a presentation and discussion on how certain theories of reading might enrich our reading and writing of fantastika. We had only just gotten the conversation going when we ran out of time, but my stalwart cousin caught the panel on camera and I wanted to share it with folks who could not make the panel.

Here is Part One:

And Part Two:

Also, here is the writeup I based the presentation on, which elaborates on some of the things I said:

Presentation for “Theories of Reading and Their Potential Insights into Fantastika”

We talk about reading at Readercon every year, but we rarely talk about our understanding of reading as a mental process of cultural practice. John H. Stevens will summarize some recent theories of reading from neurological, psychological, anthropological, and literary perspectives, followed by a discussion about what these ideas might be able to tell us about how we engage, interpret, and codify fantastic literature. In what ways is fantastika read like any other sort of text, and in what ways might we read (and write?) it differently?

What I would like to do is summarize some theories of reading from three angles: how we read, why we read, and what we do with reading. I will first outline an understanding of the reading process from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Then I will share some thoughts of why we bother reading primarily from psychological theories. Finally I will talk about what we do with reading from social science and literary perspectives.

To start, I want to say that there is no one theory that can explain reading, because it is not a straightforward process. “In metaphorical terms, one could say that the processes essential to the reading mind are not mechanical or computational, but more oceanic, that is, dynamic, fluvial and fluctuating.” Burke, Michael. Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind (Routledge Studies in Rhetoric and Stylistics) (p. 1). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition. Understanding how we read has little meaning if we do not consider why we read or what we get out of reading. We need to blend different ideas together because reading itself is a process of blending the cognitive, the social, and the psychological.


The first theory to tackle is the one that tries to understand the neurological process of how we read. The invocation of “neurological” theories is imprecise; what we are actually discussing are theories coming out of cognitive neuroscience, which are more than just tracing neurological pathways. While imaging technology has improved vastly, researchers have not pinpointed the exact processes in the brain which we use to read. This is partly because of the sorts of data we have, but also because reading is a unique process within each person’s brain.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that reading is both a recent human innovation and a peculiar use of our cognitive capacity, because we do it constantly and, for many people, with a sense of ease. But that ease is a cognitive act of legerdemain; that feeling of naturalness conceals the complexity of reading, and its novelty.  Reading is not a biological adaptation; it is the adaptation of a “skill [that] first arose from animals’ ability to distinguish objects, rather than from the uniquely human demands of verbal communication.” “When we read and write we are using previously evolved mechanisms and structures co-opted to new functions.” This adaptation combines object recognition, linguistic ability, memory, and our proclivity to constantly organize and narrate the world around us. We take several different mental and perceptual abilities and combine them into something that is both unique and broadly practiced.

And we do these things quickly. Measurements of reading activity in the brain are measured in milliseconds; basic word identification, for example, usually occurs at an average of 100 milliseconds’ speed. We see a letter or word and our brain immediately works to identify and process it. Research points to the fusiform gyrus as the location where this takes place, as reading is, at its heart, a process of visual recognition.  “It has been suggested that the occipitotemporal/fusiform region functions as a presemantic visual word form area (VWFA) by some researchers,” although this is still being discussed.  This VWFA identifies words and sends them along for cognitive processing: “Within less than 250 ms of viewing a written word, the visual system extracts the information needed to identify its linguistic significance, despite wide variations in print, script, font, size and retinal position.” While some people pride themselves on being fast readers (I read, for example, 650-750 WPM depending on the style of test), we are all processing visual cues and translating them rapidly into linguistic meanings.

Once recognized, words are processed depending on the level of recognizability in context. The left hemispheric ventral system seems to be the one we use most often for this, the one that improves with repetition, while the dorsal system seems to be where unfamiliar words are processed, and which seems to react more slowly. A sense of difficulty in reading can come from many sources, but most commonly it results from the switch to a slightly slower computational system. As I read some of these studies I wondered if this is one possible source of the “discomfort” that some readers feel when reading not just unfamiliar words, but unfamiliar narratives.

From here the process becomes more speculative, but what basically happens is that a process of integration takes place where words are assigned meaning. This process is influenced by perceptual expertise as well as a reader’s linguistic competence. These are not inherent factors, but learned ones: “The progressive development of the VWFA seems closely tied to the progression of skill, rather than being merely a matter of maturation.” Reading is a skill that takes time to learn, and that we are constantly working to improve. But why?


“Whenever and however it occurred, reading never ‘just happened.’ The story of reading reflects the sum of a series of cognitive and linguistic breakthroughs taking place alongside powerful cultural changes” (p. 25). Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Reading and writing did not just happen or naturally develop; humans created them for specific purposes.

The brain is doing this hard work because we want to understand something and engage with other minds. Reading is not just what happens in our brains; it is “an intrinsically social exchange, historically informed, culturally specific, often collectively practised.” We read for all sorts of reasons: when we read a grocery list, it is as someone who is off to buy groceries. I don’t read any book as “just” as reader; I read it as a reviewer, a writer, an admirer of fiction, a devotee of words. Others read books as pleasure-seekers, mystery-solvers, time killers.

We read because we are seeking something: information, transport, fulfillment. And here I’m going to synthesize several theories because no single one really works, and focus primarily on fiction, drawing mostly on Richard Gerrig, Daniel Rapp, and Daniel Gilbert.  We read fiction because we want to believe something. We are trying to find something out. We want to establish a linkage that we can draw upon. Gerrig & Rapp say that we read fiction so that we “may derive bodies of evidence” that people can “apply to their own life experiences.”

We read fiction not to escape, but to temporarily relocate. We do this by opening our minds to writing. Any act of reading is an explicit act of taking in symbols and meanings because we are trying to find something, whether that is distraction, knowledge, or vicarious experience. Reading is the acceptance of other peoples’ thoughts and dreams, which we take in to feed our own.


Most theories of reading are concerned with discovering what we are trying to do with reading, and there a number of provocative perspectives on this, but I want to approach this from primarily a social science perspective, so I am going to borrow a few ideas from Pierre Bourdieu. The basic constructs I want to use are the ideas of symbolic capital and the field of production. Reading identifies and assigns symbolic value to texts, but why do we care what those values are and how do we judge their significance and utility? Bourdieu argues that any act of reading is situated in the social world of each individual and that we each assess meaning and value based on our social location. That value, he argues, is a form of capital, a symbolic source that we use for social purposes.

The process of reading is also enclosed by the social fields within which it takes place even as it reproduces and changes them. Bourdieu calls this the field of production, which is a form of social organization with two main aspects:

(a) a configuration of social roles, agent positions, and the structures they fit into and (b) the ongoing process by which actors assume and use these positions. Reading is a social activity that is performed from a specific social position and that we use to create all sorts of social effects. The field of production creates a framework through which we can view reading and is a factor in how we assign value to what we read.

Reading is productive in many ways. We gather information from it, use it to make social connections, draw from it for psychological purposes, and even formulate and reproduce cultural ideas through it. As Stanislas Dehaene put it, human cultures are not “just a bag of clever tricks to stimulate preestablished cerebral modules. Reading suggests that cultural invention goes far beyond this description. It did not simply emerge thanks to stimulation of our visual system. Writing created conditions for a proper ‘cultural revolution’ by radically extending our cognitive abilities.” (p. 307). But reading is much more than those abilities and each of these theories may suggest a useful way to look at the reading and writing of fantastic fiction.