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Having just finished a book, and in the process discovered that five hours have passed with no sensation of the passage of time, I’m starting to wonder about the psychological state I enter while reading.

I’m not trained in psychology and my dataset is limited to what I’ve personally experienced; any conclusions I reach are likely to be flawed and certainly not applicable to the general public. Even so, I figure that it can’t hurt to at least take a few tentative steps into introspection.

The most logical place to start is to describe the physical sensations. If I’ve been reading steadily, the following are generally true:

  • There is no perception of the passage of time. Once I stop reading, usually because the book is over, I am usually surprised by how much time has passed. On the same note, it is nearly impossible to set an endpoint at a particular time and stop then
  • There is no perception of the physical actions required for reading. I am obviously scanning lines and turning pages, but the entire process is automatic.
  • There are certain limited perceptions. I am aware of my posture and general comfort level, just as I am aware of the color and texture of the paper. Despite the fact that I am continuously aware of all of these things, it’s all in the back of my mind, at a very low level, very far back. It’s kind of the same way that I’d notice the color of the wallpaper and the intensity of the lighting in a room in which I’m having a conversation with someone. Oddly enough, I don’t seem to pay attention the physical, printed words on the page at all.
  • Though I tune out most of what I hear, an alarm that I’ve set will break me out of the book. I often listen to music while reading without really hearing it, but occasionally a song will come up with strong associations to some subject and I’ll break out of the reading for a few minutes to focus on the song and its associations. This focus on the music and its associations almost never happens when I’m just listening to music; I need to have achieved the focus first.
  • I am highly focused on the information stream I am retrieving from the book, to the exclusion of everything else, as noted above. It feels like I am reading at the same pace as I normally think. This focus is such that the stream of consciousness which I think of as my train of thought is entirely suppressed. In some ways, it is as if the text from the book replaces my primary thought process. For example, small side-trains of thought branch, are considered concurrently with the primary train of thought, and go away in relation to interesting ideas in the text. This is identical to what happens when I think of interesting things on my own.

There are a few more data points to consider:

  • People occasionally react with surprise to the rapidity with which I finish books. I infer from this that I read more quickly than average. However, without a proper test, I couldn’t quantify this in words per minute. I have read that the recommended method of increasing reading speed is increasing the block size that you scan and recognize as a unit. That is to say that children begin learning to read by scanning letters and composing them into words, but the real breakthrough into literacy happens when they stop scanning letters and start reading words as units. I couldn’t say at what block size I read, but I suspect that I scan entire sentences complete. This is because of my perception; reading feels like sentences arrive complete and in sequence, as concepts come complete when thinking naturally. However, I would not be surprised to learn that I read at a substantially lower level. I am fairly sure that I do not read paragraphs in a single block; digesting an entire paragraph in a single conceptual unit feels like it would take time to process, which I don’t experience.
  • I notice anomalies. Misspellings, broken grammar, and typos all stand out and interrupt the flow of reading, if only for a few moments. Ripped pages, stains, and so forth generally get noticed in a small side-train of thought, but don’t interrupt the flow of reading unless they are severe enough to render the page illegible.
  • I interrupt reading periodically to shift position, and I often fidget by bouncing one or both legs. However, though I can remember such things in retrospect, they are almost entirely subconscious while they are happening; it is as if the flow of my thoughts has been paused with the temporary cessation of reading, and the two resume simultaneously.
  • I tend to be very reluctant to stop reading for any reason, even very important reasons that I know of in advance such as a class I am scheduled to teach in 15 minutes. When I am forced to stop reading for an extended period of time, there is an intense compulsion to resume reading as soon as feasible. Luckily, this compulsion dwindles over time.
  • All of these things have been true since, at latest, second grade. I am not sure exactly when I learned to read, or when it became easy, natural, and focused; my memories from before second grade are fairly fragmented.

I know that by the time I was 7 and therefore elegible for a full ‘adult’ library card, the librarians at the children’s library knew me by name and I had exhausted everything it had to offer in terms of novels. I did skip the picture books and most reference books, but towards the end, I was getting desperate. By seventh grade, I was forbidden to bring novels into my school, or to buy them at the periodic book fairs; I read in class too often. In eighth grade I was suspended: my religion teacher attempted to enforce the ban and take the book from my hands, I refused to let go, and she slapped me. The suspension was for defiance of a teacher, but I think I won that one.

In summation, I find reading an intensely focused, very relaxing, and highly compelling exercise. I suspect that the state I enter while engrossed in a book is similar in some respects to that of people meditating to the exclusion of the world around them. However, instead of introspection, I focus on an external channel, the text of the book.

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