How Good a Reader Are You If You Compared Your Reading Skills to Playing a Piano?

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Most people assume if you can read you can read. But what if reading was a skill like playing the piano and most readers are no better at reading than an eleven-year old with a year of piano lessons. (I’m expecting you to hear a badly played tune in your head.)

What if you could read like Glenn Gould playing Bach? Can you even imagine what that could be like? It would be like having Broadway actors performing in your head. It would be like having the professors from The Great Courses whispering you the annotations. It would be like James Joyce reading Ulysses to himself.

Well, I don’t read anything like that. My inner reading voice is a tone deaf monotone, and my annotations come from a lifetime of half-ass autodidactism.

Growing up I read nearly a thousand books. Because I read so much, I assumed I was a great reader. Beginning in 2002 when I joined I often selected audiobooks I had read and loved way back then — when every book I read was great, even those by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Hearing all my childhood favorite books read by skilled readers has shown me just how bad a reader I was when I was growing up and thought I was so great.

And it’s not just comparing my wimpy inner reading voice to professional narrators, or the fact that I was young and wasn’t mature enough to understand everything in what I was reading. I am including my college years in that youthful period, when my mind was at its peak performance, and being crammed with a variety of diverse knowledge.

Listening to audiobooks taught me that I read too fast growing up. That I paid attention to the action and dialog but skimmed over any long passages of dense narrative details. But I also missed the emotional cues, and I didn’t spend enough time picturing the scenes and settings. More than that, I didn’t dwell on the implications of what was being expressed fictionally.

Every so often a friend will say they love the sentences in the books they are reading. I don’t think I ever stopped to admire a sentence.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that my reading skills have vastly improved over the years. They are a good deal better, but I am no concert pianist at reading. In fact, I have a hard time gauging my skills against others.

Growing up I assumed everyone saw the world in the same way, that our brains and senses were similar. I’ve since learned that our perceptions of reality vary so greatly that if two people standing next to each other watching the same event will interpret it in two distinctly different ways. Since discovering that I’ve paid attention to whenever people describe how they read, and I’ve learned that decoding words produces a wide range of cognitive results.

You can test this observation by asking your friends about what they experience when they read. I’ve been doing this for years and discovered some of my friends have amazing mental abilities that make me green with envy.

Have you ever loved a book and urged a best friend to read it and then been let down when they didn’t respond to it like you did? Have you ever read a classic novel or bestseller and wondered what all the fuss was about? Have you ever read a book about your favorite subject and found it boring?

Part of reading is decoding words in the way the author intended. Part of reading is being on the same wavelength as the writer. Learning to be a skill reader involves words, sentences, and paragraphs, but it’s also involves reassembling the vision the author constructed in their mind that they wanted you to see, and triggering the emotions and philosophical insights they felt.

What if readers could be ranked like chess players using their Elo ranking system? Would I be an 800 or 1200? I’m quite confident I’m nowhere near a master rating. I wish I could be a grand master of reading but I know that’s impossible. We all wish we could be rock stars at our chosen ambitions but we’re not. But just how much can we improve? Can advance reading skills be taught? Can advance reading skills be assessed? I wonder what I’m missing.

My SF anthology reading group on Facebook is reading two stories this week, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe from 1972. I might have tried to read both when I was young because I had anthologies they were in, but I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked either. I just don’t remember. The writing style of the Forster was too quaint, and Wolfe’s prose was much too dense.

Reading these two stories in 2020 is dazzling my reading mind, but I hunger to know just how much I’m comprehending, just how much of their totality I’m experiencing with my current reading skills.

I’m reading these stories with my eyes (Kindle) and my ears (Audible) concurrently. I’m doing everything I can to read them with all the possible reading skill I can muster, but I have no idea how skilled that effort is. Am I 50% efficient at getting what Forster and Wolfe intended? Or even 75%, or just 30%? It’s my third reading for Forster and my second reading of Wolfe in recent years. I’ve also read about both stories, and I’m constantly encountering insights into them I missed or didn’t draw the implications the reviewers did.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is about an old man telling about his childhood, and the audiobook I have has an old man with a pompous or posh English voice reading it. You can listen here:

The setting feels like the French Quarter of a 19th-century New Orleans but it’s actually set on another planet in the far future. Wolfe writes in a baroque style about two boys growing up in a brothel during a decadent era, being educated by a robotic tutor, and slowly learning their bizarre origins. The story is dense, and I’m not sure if I read it ten times that I would find every treasure Wolfe buried away in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”

“The Machine Stops” is about an agoraphobic woman blogger who Zooms with all her friends in a country completely controlled by an AI machine. Well, not exactly since it was written in 1909. But when you read it, you’ll wonder if E. M. Forster ever hitched a ride on H. G. Wells’ time machine. Again, there is so much in this story that I can’t tell if I’m little Becky playing her first recital at church or Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff in Russia. My hope is I’m at least Becky as a sophomore majoring in music at college.

I just wished I had some kind of assessment tool to help me evaluate my abilities and progress. I suppose I could go back to college and take literature courses, but I’d prefer something more scientific, something more quantitative, something involving computers and brain scans.

Anyone who has read the works of Oliver Sacks knows how different humans minds can function. Reading isn’t just reading. Our ability to process words into mind movies varies so greatly that it’s impossible to comprehend. Every cognitive ability you can possibly envy in another person goes into the infinite ways in which we process books. Because we can’t see what other people experience when reading we assume it’s like our own reading experience. But it’s not.

In my last third of life I’m struggling to read with greater skill. With fiction, I’ve mostly shifted to reading short stories. Novels take up too much of my precious time, and they are also too indulgent. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas are compact, intense, and offer more variety of reading experiences. I’d like to think I’m an old dog that can still learn new tricks. I know I’ll never read like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall, or even at a high school auditorium.

I intuit this from listening to the best audiobook narrators or from watching lectures on The Great Courses Plus. But I have acquired the awareness of my progress and that’s something. It’s a shame we haven’t emphasized the details of reading skills. Oh sure, schools constantly grade kids on reading ability, but we never get enough feedback as to what those abilities truly are.

All I can guess is what you experience in your head when reading is much different from what I experience. I just wonder if there is any way to compare experiences? I participate in a number of reading groups, but the best we seem capable of is expressing if we like or dislike what we read. We know how much a musician knows because they perform and their performances can be evaluated and compared.

I suppose the real GRE for evaluating reading is writing. By that measure, I also come up short. I struggle to write fiction like a drowning person flails in the ocean.


9 thoughts on “How Good a Reader Are You If You Compared Your Reading Skills to Playing a Piano?”

  1. You’re going with the more classical idea of literary analysis: the one that believes authorial intent has merit. I don’t believe in authorial intent. I believe the ‘author is dead.’ And Reader Response is my favorite type of literary analysis.
    So, I definitely never want to get on the same wavelength as a writer. Reading would be so boring if there was only one objective “right” way to read a book.

    1. Who said anything about one objective right way to read books? The essay was about how everyone is radically different and perceives books differently. Just because I want to perfectly understand the author’s intent doesn’t mean I think there is only their way of interpreting their work. First of all, writers don’t really understand themselves either, and their work represents a gestalt between all the books they’ve read and all their experiences.

      But do you think writers write books intending to create Rorschach inkblots for their readers to interpret any old way they want? I’ve always considered books the most complex form of communication possible, the ultimate message in a bottle from one human to another.

      And isn’t limiting the interpretation to the readers’ response a kind of solipsism unless they take in other interpretations? And if you are considering other views, why not the writers?

    2. I think you’re absolutely right about lemons and kiwis, but as for your advice about how to build a birdhouse, I disagree completely. Pine is better.

  2. Mmm. I used to think that I was a poor reader but the stories we’ve been doing on the group reads have shown me that if I’m baffled by something then nearly everyone else is as well. I note that with the Wolfe story no-one has yet come up with any idea of what the point of it is supposed to be.

    1. I’m really digging “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” but I’ve delayed commenting to give other people a chance to say something first. And I haven’t finished my second listening. Maybe I should say something to prime the pump.

  3. Oh my – what a subject. I think my reading skills were probably best about 10 years ago when I could focus for hours and really get into a nice dense text. At one point I got totally engrossed in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – etc. Those books need that kind of focus. And then there are the really great books like Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Don Delillo’s Underworld which I read 3 times and got more out of each time.

    And then I get together with other people who read the same book and voila! Omg! They got different stuff out of it! And they can back it up with text-based references. There are whole books of interpretation out there which take Eco or Nabokov apart in various ways – Thomas Pynchon too but maybe not so much. But that’s the thing – these are great books for a reason. (And Eco wrote a book about the dangers of over-interpretation.)

    The Bible is a really good example of a book which can be read multiple times and be rewarding each time. What are you reading for? Plot line, character development, themes or message, authorial choices like structure and language? Steinbeck is an author whose actual texts can be read by an average 5th grader but the content is definitely adult and worth it (Great stuff for adults learning to read English.) Herman Melville is for college kids and not necessarily worth it – (imo).

    Otoh, I don’t need much focus for cozy mysteries and thrillers because they’re plot based with some character development – there’s not a lot of time spent on theme development. I just relax and let the story flow by. I’m surprised if anything thought provoking pops up.

    What are you reading for? I think old sci-fi was more techie oriented than the modern stuff. Romance has changed a bit from girl meets boy/ boy gets girl to include the options of women and GLBTQ stuff. Themes of minority voices are coming to be heard in the mainstream literary world.

    I say read what you want, how you want and when you want. I have two children and two granddaughters who, although they read, are not readers like I am. So what? They are far, far better athletes.

  4. Comparing my reading to music; I much rather listen to Matthew Halsall than to Brahms or Beethoven. Or to art; I much prefer impressionist paintings to those of Michelangelo or Salvator Dali. And for writers, I greatly prefer P.G.Wodehouse to Gene Wolfe. I guess I play chopsticks quite well.

  5. I try to read a book a day. Some Big Fat Books (500+ pages) take me a couple of days to finish. I believe reading improves through practice. I try to vary my reading by reading novels, then non-fiction, then fantasy, then mysteries, then poetry, then short story collections. And then I repeat. Practice makes perfect.

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