Learning how to read?

In considering my disdain for Peter Jackson’s interpretation and portrayal of what I consider to be a masterpiece of literature in the Lord of the Rings, I found that I began berating myself for not accepting that any interpretation that would gather a mass audience to this story could never portray anything like the depth of the books and surrounding literature. (I’ll avoid the debate about whether reading awfully written literature is more damaging to the mind than bad television for all those that say “Oh well Harry Potter may not be literature but it’s got people reading” Great, there are words printed on a bottle of bleach yet I wouldn’t call it recommended reading) It is an age-old debate generally garnering the amusing interpretations in modern ‘ever connected’ societies by characters such as The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy. Yet I think there is something beneath this deserving more investigation.

It lies in one of the subtle differences in people I feel underlying a fundamental condition impacting society at many levels. How we interpret the world and therefore other people around us.

Is it a part of the development from childhood to adulthood which generates the perception that a film will almost always struggle to compare to the book it is created from or is the ability inherent to the individual concerned?

It falls into a sort of nature v nurture debate to some degree, as in observing and talking to people I can see no clear indicator beyond hints at a set of characteristics that differ starkly between individuals. It also even harks back to the historical and arguably more natural public oral tradition of story-telling compared to the very personal involvement of reading at one’s pace and interpreting of the words. (I’ll avoid taking the long tangent of the effects of stories upon retelling, reading or hearing the whole story over discrete periods of time and the differing effects of stories based up each person’s previous experience, due to it being the source for an entire dissertation!)

Some people dive into reading and literature with an abandon and verve which is astounding. Personally, given the appropriate material, I could read for several hours a day and at any time can see the images of the characters, scenes and locations from the story, be they set in factual, fantasy or science fiction settings, as clearly as remembering an experience or watching a film. Many people will say this is normal and “doesn’t everybody?”. Well that’s the question.

From detailed discussions with people over the years, I have learned that this is not a natural talent that all possess. In other cases people state that however hard they may try, they cannot make themselves read a book of any type. Some of these claim also to have little imagination or ability to envision the situations and characters portrayed by the words when reading from the page. Yet these same people can and do listen to the words being read to them, watch television and films and obviously enjoy them. I should point out that I personally wouldn’t classify these people as without imagination. I would say that all of them have a very grounded view of the world and could never be described as being ‘with their head in the clouds’.

Now it is clear to see how there could be seen to be a difference in the brain processing a visual and aural interpretation of a story when presented through a screen and pictures compared to words written on a page. How then is it that someone who cannot make themselves read written words in a book can enjoy those same words when read to them? Do they perceive and imagine the story portrayed in the same fashion as someone reading the words themselves and do they experience that similar immersion more than if they watched a film of the same story? The consideration here is whether hearing the unabridged words creates that same differences in people’s perception of a book and film. One would imagine yes, due to the inevitable reduction in complexity and subtleties by transferring from word to screen BUT does the effect of reading the words differ to hearing them? Just consider how different a sentence can be made just by the speaker changing their tone for emphasis or how one may not know how to pronounce a word that one has only ever read.

To me there exists a subtle difference in the manner of processing information in two distinct types of person. In one case there is an ability to engage with the story in a very personal and intense fashion. The contrasting case is denoted by a much more passive and voyeuristic nature which is happy to be led along the story very much on the outside, looking in. Both types of person can be impacted emotionally, intellectually and perceptually by the information, so where lies the difference?

In a jocular generalisation I wonder if it is possible to define which type one belongs to with this simple test?

Are you the type of person who;
A) When watching a film are constantly questioning consistency in a factual story and in a fictional story constantly testing how, given the boundaries of the fictional environment, various abilities, laws of physics and objects could be allowed to work?

B) When watching a film are generally asking others “Who is that person?”, “Why would that happen?” or after 90% of the film has run, “So why are they going there now?”?

Oh and I forgot to say type A) is generally helping type B) if watching the film together.. Type A) and A) watching together works but one doesn’t get to see much of the film due to all the talking.

Admittedly this is an immense simplification as there are many more subtleties and cross-overs that could be introduced around personal interest, experience and knowledge. In some ways it may be that people who are capable of regularly reading are still not able to envisage the glorious worlds contained within well crafted literature. I find that hard to believe as how could one read and interpret a story without doing so? (Then how can one watch a film and not understand what has happened? Once again, am I just lacking understanding of how others see the world compared to how I do, by asking?)

So, to stretch the generalisation a little further, is there a difference between the way in which these types of people interpret the story as they experience it? Is it that the opinions of an example film for people in type B) would be based on their view of the real world superimposed on the world of the film’s storyline. The opinions of the type A) character would perhaps then be seen as being interpreted more in the context of the film’s environment juxtaposed and or superimposed on to the real world.

Finally, after re-reading, this article seems to hold some arguments that are similarly applicable to an artistic/scientific differential that used to be held most apparently in the way children were channeled into an arts or sciences stream in UK schools (pre-1980s). Now for me, that was not acceptable and didn’t feel right (not that it actually worked when I did try to mix both so there you go!) but perhaps this was a good option and is one of the structures that really changed the manner of education for the worse rather than the new form of continuous assessment. One has a lifetime to blend sciences and arts after school, perhaps it is better to be taught to one’s strengths whilst young..

I do not know. It does make me consider again a maxim to hold in understanding others. Do not expect other people to see the world in the way you do, react to it in the way you do nor interact with it how you do. It is no one’s fault if they or you do not have the same abilities or perceptions of the world or even apply the same meanings to words. To expect such things where they do not exist is unfair and a reflection on your own lack of understanding. Learn and respect each persons abilities, beliefs and perceptions and you will know the world around you better.

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