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9:03am on Monday, 20th February, 2006:

Advancing Years


My elder daughter has started reading The Lord of the Rings.

I've read this book three times, I think, perhaps four, beginning when I was aged 12 (it took me nearly a year, as I only used to read it once a week when we went to the laundrette with our washing). Thus, when my daughter asked me how old Frodo was when he started his journey, I could confidently tell her he was 33.

Then, she showed me this:

He's 50?

Somehow, this never registered with me. I always thought he was 33, but that was when Bilbo disappeared. Frodo left it 17 more years before he followed in his footsteps. How could I miss that?

This happens occasionally when I'm reading novels. I'll come across something that sets me thinking, but carry on reading. After anything from a sentence to a paragraph to a page to several pages, I'll suddenly realise that I've not taken in a word that I've read. I have to go back and re-read it if I want to know what went on. Usually, though, I'll just skim it, on the grounds that if anything interesting were there I'd have noticed. I suspect that this is what happened with The Lord of the Rings, and my skimming also missed the bit about Frodo's age. Maybe I should re-read the chapter and see what it was that might have given me reason to direct my thoughts elsewhere.

This sort of thing happens all the time, of course. If people do things often enough, they can automate it. I remember hearing many years ago that trans-Europe truck drivers pulled over by police for routine vehicle checks would sometimes have to look around for visual cues as to what country they were in if addressed in a neutral language such as English. They could drive across Europe quite safely, but daydreamed to the extent that they didn't know where they were when snapped out of it unexpectedly. If you can "stare into space" while driving a truck, you can do it while reading.

The thing is, though, reading isn't the same as truck driving. There's language involved. Furthermore, sometimes I'll be reading while thinking about something else and what brings me back to the text is the fact I just read something interesting, rather than the fact that my mind finished its wanderings or there was an external interruption. In this kind of lazy reading, there's clearly a process of interpretation going on, but (as in the example above) not necessarily of assimilation.

Now it starts to get weird. Long-time readers of QBlog will recall that I can set off "processes" to do mentally mechanical things while I'm thinking about something else. This reading-in-the-background stuff sounds just like these processes in action, and indeed it feels like it, too. Although I can consciously set off processes, most of the time (as with everyone else) it happens automatically without my thinking about it. However, my processes (I don't know about yours) have problems with language. In particular, they can't generate it.

I'd always regarded this as a syntax/semantics thing. I can set up a process to type a paragraph because it only needs to understand the words as symbols, not as words. If I read something that doesn't parse, I instantly notice. However, if, while reading, a process can flag text as "interesting", there has to be more to it than that. It's a bit like the cocktail party effect, in which you respond to your name being said across the room while not being aware of conversations occurring right next to you (except if one of those suddenly mentioned your name then you'd be aware of it — and probably of the whole sentence in which your name was mentioned, too, at least that's how it works for me).

It's not just the difference between form and content, then. It's as if the reading process can understand words in terms of symbols, even though it can't create them. It's not full understanding, because memory of it is transient. What seems to happen is that some basic sense of meaning is extracted and run against the emotions; if there's a big enough response then they kick in with a "that's interesting!" interrupt and let me know, but otherwise they just throw it away. The emotional response is purely mechanical: I don't get excited, enraged, amused or whatever by what I read, I just get told that if I re-read it and pay attention I'll get excited, enraged, amused or whatever.

This might suggest that upon reading something "properly" that I previously read while thinking about something else, I could have an easier time of it; it's a possibility, but I can't say I've felt any benefit of it before. Maybe I'll try to set up an explicit process to do some reading, although it's always a pain when I want to give them physical things to do (move eyes, turn pages) so it'll take me a few attempts. I can't see right now that there'll be anything useful I could do with this, in the sense that I may in future set off processes to do things which in the past I wouldn't have, but you never know.

If processes can access text enough to "understand" it at some level, I wonder what would happen if they read something that named them? My processes collapse if I think about them in words, but what if one read about itself in words? Hmm, I guess that in the first instance it would interrupt me, but if I was expecting this and didn't want it to interrupt me then it ought to be able to carry on. I couldn't give it instructions that way, as it couldn't envisage itself from the text, but that's probably just as well really.

Unanswered question: why is it easier for me to think of something else while reading than it is for me to think of something else while listening?

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).