Feeling the books

When we are looking for new information, we read as fast as we can to understand the text and retain the knowledge within. This is the reason why people take speedreading classes. Occasionally, I need to deal with the opposite challenge: reading the text for the maximal emotional impact. For example, when reading fiction or some religious and philosophical texts, we do not really want our reading to finish. Instead, we want to immerse in what we read and be transformed by it. This is yet another article I publish to discuss the slow reading challenges. Please consider reading further here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Feel the book

Most of the informative reading we do is computer-centered. We find quickly the relevant documents, and want to process them as fast and accurately as possible to search for yet more document. The search is the heart of the activity. But what happens when the activity we do is not research focused?

There are many options seemingly superior to the paper book, yet paper books are anything but dead. Why? Scientists find out that reading physical books is 10% to 30% faster than reading online. The contrast and resolution of the printed books are superb. The control over the formatting of the text is superior to the online content, and hence the content is easier to read.

There is also another aspect of paper books, which is very subjective and harder to measure. The paper books have a physical presence. Each paper book has a unique feel to it. When we hold it in our hands we feel the weight of the knowledge within. We can sense the age of the book and the quality of the paper, we can even smell the dust it gathered over time. When holding the book, or simply looking at it we recollect all the special experiences we had with it. It does not need to be charged or online, and we can access it any time we want. Owning a physical object, we build a deep emotional connection with the object, and its value in our eyes rises. This is called is psychology the endowment effect. Tangible possessions are usually exhibiting a higher level of the endowment effect than something highly abstract like knowledge.

Full body reading

When we read online, the reading is no different than any other online activity. We sit in the same pose and do similar things. Reading a paper book is a totally different sort of ritual. We seat on a couch or outdoors or some other place not connected to the electricity. We hold the book in a very specific position that is comfortable for the books, but not comfortable with anything else. Quite often there will be a glass of hot beverage near us, to make the experience even more fun and cozy.

In old ages, when the books were scarce, reading was even more intensive. The readers would often vibrate their entire bodies with the rhythm of reading. We can still see this sort of reading in Jewish religious schools. The reading was usually accompanied by some sort of humming sound, as the readers subvocalized and vocalized the texts. Some of the books were pocket sized and people carried them everywhere, while others were huge and needed a special table to be read. There is also something special in holding an expensive book, knowing that someone spent six months of his life working the calligraphy and adornments of the book, and there is no other same book anywhere else.

Some books used to be read in meditative positions, like standing on the knees in revelation to the knowledge within. We know, that simply changing the body language while reading we can change the way we react to what we read. Walking with a book or sleeping over it, we generate an intimate connection with it. Kneeling in front of the book we allow it to shape our souls.

Reading aloud

Many books were intended to be read aloud, like poetry. Other books were intended for singing. These books could have some musical notation accompanying it, yet most people simply knew what the music should sound like.

While we keep punctuation in most of our books, it is not a good replacement for communal reading. The music of people reading aloud is called reading prosody. When many people read the same texts together, the reading prosody becomes a powerful experience. Again, this is something we usually see in religious practices and nowhere else.

Once I was interested in the effect of this reading aloud, and I asked some of my friends to read with me several texts from modern literature in unison, like pages from Nitsche and Camus. Then I asked them what was the feeling that resulted from reading. Everybody reported the communal, transformational and deeply moving effect of this reading.

Audiobooks can be very interesting. Good actors and good teachers generate great reading prosody, breathing their own emotions and experiences into what they read aloud. Some texts are hard to read on your own. Having an audiobook playing while we commute can be very helpful. While typically we play videos faster than their natural speed, with audiobooks I often recommend preserving the original speed of the recording to preserve the nonverbal cues of the performer.

I quote from here:

We probably both read and speak expressively to better communicate our message to others. All the pitch variations, emphases, and meaningful pauses help listeners receive and comprehend your message. They help the listener break up your message into useful chunks of information and focus on the key information. Prosody in speech is one way to increase the salience and importance of some ideas over others. Expressive reading does the same thing, giving priority to important words and ideas, and helping to segment the text acoustically into groupings that belong together—words in a phrase, words in a sentence, paragraph changes, etc.

People with dyslexia can learn to speedread using our methodology, but we do not teach how to slowread. And here I would suggest switching to audiobooks instead…


When I was a child my father often told me stories he understood from the book he read. My father is a natural storyteller, so when he summarized me a book or a historical event it always was exciting, even though typically inaccurate. For different reasons, I needed to read the same books later on. Usually, I loved my father’s version much better than the original. He was less focused on generating a coherent picture or colorful visualization, but he was always very keen about the emotional effect of some of the details on the reader. No matter what he read, when he discussed it with me, the document was of mythological proportions: with heroes, villains, and strange quests. He did the same with his job and his travels. Now he is telling the same stories to my kids. Later my kids come to me and ask for my stories, but being a scientist I am somewhat boring in comparison.

Good fiction, like a subjective description of a singular anecdotal account, can also improve the impact of scientific documents. Great scientists often have this charismatic storytelling quality which allows them to capture the audience.

One of the tips I have for someone willing to learn something: try to tell it as a story to your spouse or your closest friend. If you get boring, this means that your visualization or intuition of the event suck. When you are good and talking to the right person (after all we cannot always expect others to share our interests), you will see the person resonating with your message and coming up with his own stories and ideas inspired by your message. Any good book we read is a story, and if we get that story right we can share it with others.


When we write our own stories, we should ideally read them out loud. This is something all good editors do, and most authors simply do not have the time to do the same. Reading aloud allows us to fix the prosody of our texts, to avoid complex sentences and to correct the spelling. Sometimes texts that look perfectly OK on the paper do not hold when we need to read them aloud, and we improve our style while reading aloud.

Spelling is a great task for children and immigrants who need to learn a new language. Being proficient grown-ups spelling is more tricky since we focus on different elements: rare words, rhetoric devices, readability and the music of the language.


Poetry is the ultimate form of control over the language and expressing the deepest experiences with minimalistic tools. In poetry we need to track a huge variety of factors: the sound and the shape of the lines, the inner music of the poem, the associations of all sorts: audio, visual, cultural and personal both of the author and of the reader. Writing and editing poetry is hard, reading and feeling it is even harder. I wrote a couple of poetry books (none of them in English) when I was younger, so I have some understanding of what is involved, yet reading the poetry of other people has always been more difficult for me. It involves the intimate feeling of the internal world of another person in a snapshot of time and with very focused intent.

Our own worlds are probably very rich, yet the summary of all human experiences is unimaginably richer. When we read poetry we allow that experiences to reach us, through the music of the words, the shape of the text, the associations the texts invoke and our own voice which we hear when reading aloud. This is more a form of meditation and mindfulness exercise than it is reading in the way we typically use it. Hence we should enjoy and value each opportunity we have to do this.

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