What is reading? The Oxford English Dictionary lists 10 basic definitions for the verbal noun reading and 25 basic definitions for the verb to read; several of these definitions have three or more sub-definitions. The variety and complexity of the OED entries point to the fact that we use the concept of reading and the verb to readthe acquisition of knowledge via language; although, the concepts surrounding reading have gone through many theoretical transformations that serve to muddy our current understanding of what it means to read.1 Hence, to begin clarifying the concept while at the same time offering a diverse set of references for further study, it will help to begin with a particularly abstract picture of what it is to read and lay out the various issues from there.

An abstract concept of reading can be found in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer:

The mode of being of a text has something unique and incomparable about it. It presents a specific problem of translation to the understanding. Nothing is so strange, and at the same time so demanding as the written word. Not even a meeting of speakers of a foreign language can be compared with this strangeness, since the language of gesture and of sound is always in part immediately intelligible. The written word and what partakes of it—literature—is the intelligibility of mind transferred to the most alien medium…That is why the capacity to read, to understand what is written, is like a secret art, even a magic that frees and binds us.2

We can find several theses in this long passage that pertain to our study of reading. First is that a text exists in such a way that requires a different uptake than that of a pure image or a sound. A text can be read as a substitute for other sensory experiences; one reads about an image, sound, texture, scent, or taste. The sensation is replaced by the text in such a way as to have an analogous effect: reading about a corpse will affect the reader analogously to encounter a real corpse. From a certain point of view, namely that of JL Austin, this reading experience is “etiolated,” i.e., epistemologically weaker than a real life encounter with a corpse.3 The strangeness, then, in reading is in that it is both the same and not the same as an actual experience.

The second thesis is that the substitute experience offered by the text (or, offered by the oration in non-literary cultures; cf. orality) must rely on some method of translating (cf. translation) the real experience into language. Gadamer finds further problems in translating from a natural language of speech to a non-natural syntax of writing; although other theorists, notably JG Herder and Ludwig Wittgenstein in their own ways understand written language as contiguous with its spoken form. Nonetheless, in reading, and perhaps also in listening, the analogy between the real experience and the substitute experience is maintained by the thought that the one can be turned into the other. Thus in this thesis, it comes out that the concept of reading directly demonstrates questions surrounding mediation.

The third thesis found in the long passage above states that reading, because it deals with these epistemological and linguistic issues, has a double-effect on our self-understanding: on the one hand, the substitute experience supplied by reading appears to us as an almost magical play on our consciousness; and on the other, a person who possesses the ability to read has a power over consciousness that cannot be had in ordinary experience. Reading, because it gives access to phenomenological (sensory) and epistemological data, appears to conjure experience; reading makes things available to the mind what is not immediately available to the body, thereby making something apparent that is not extant. The other side of this apparent phenomenon is that reading can be actively used to create these experiences in such a way as to alter behavior towards the real world. This is the motif of Don Quixote; it is also the central argument in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles.” In the latter, Emerson writes: “The use of literature is to afford us a platform from whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”4

While these three theses offer a diverse range of theories surrounding the abstract concept of reading, because they are derived from Gadamer’s own theory they all drive towards a particular reading tradition: the western humanities. Thus to look at a wider range of theories, we can begin to consider objections to each of the three themes.

Firstly, one can object to the notion that texts require a different process of uptake than that of sensory perceptions. If the first thesis is true, then one could hypothesize that written text maintains a set distance from phenomena. Thus there would be a set separation between reading and experiencing. Many 20th century researchers have shown that the relationship between text and sense may be closer than one may think. Steinberg and Yamada report5 that the more complicated Japanese Kanji characters are easier to learn than the syllable forming kana. This goes against the common sense assumption that (a) kana are easier to learn because they are phonetic, (b) phonetic language is easier to learn because it breaks down information into transferable units, and therefore (c) a language that has transferable units will more successfully encode phenomena for communicating. They explain their finding from the point of view that “meaningfulness” is “much more important in learning writing symbols than perceptual complexity.” Therefore the hypothesis can be refuted: written text is in fact closer to phenomena when there is more meaning involved. An example could be the newspaper headline, “GOTCHA” meant to convey in a one-word syllable, in bold print, the (politically tempered) experience of the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falkland’s War.6

The Sun Gotcha

Furthermore, one can object to this first thesis’ assumption that reading occurs only through text. Gadamer himself suggests reading can be otherwise, although he puts in quote-marks the word “read”: “Only if we ‘recognize’ what is represented are we able to ‘read’ a picture…”7 Indeed, if Steinberg and Yamada are correct, pictures themselves convey as much meaning as alphabetic or phonetic text; sympathetic to this is Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image”8 Added to these thoughts on pictures and their narrative meaning is the observation that cinema, too, can be read. Generally, this means anything from film to natural signs can be viewed as having conceptual and narrative content analogous to that of text.9

There is, however, some debate as to whether or not cinema constitutes a language in a grammatical sense, and thus can be taken as an adequate replacement of text. If cinema has a grammar, then it has all the conveyance abilities of a written text. If cinema does not have a particular grammar, then film appears as a mixed media encorporating sound images James Monaco, author of How to Read of Film, writes: “Film has no grammar. There are, however, some vaguely defined rules of usage in cinematic language…As with written and spoken languages, it is important to remember that the syntax of film is a result of its usage, not a determinant of it.”10 Monaco thus takes on an “ordinary language” view of film, akin to JL Austin and Wittgenstein’s views of speech and writing, and makes film rely on usage. Gilles Deleuze argues on the other hand, “The cinema seems to be a composition of images and of signs, that is, a pre-verbal intelligible content (pure semiotics)…What we call cinematographic concepts are therefore the types of images and the signs that correspond to each type.”11 That quotation sets up an argument drawing heavily from the semiotics of CS Pierce to argue for a basic “grammar” of cinema; later in Deleuze incorporates this grammar into a phenomenology of cinematic understanding.12

Thus we can see that reading is not confined to text and it is not decidedly based in either use or meaning. What these refutations do for the second thesis is call into question the notion of a substitute experience. It would often seem that reading a text, or a picture, film, or anything else for that matter, is the constitutive experience. Michel de Montaigne sometimes takes up reading in such a way that one would any other sensory experience: “I have to withdraw [the eye from the book] and apply it again by starts, just as in order to judge the luster of a scarlet fabric, they tell us to pass our eyes over it several times, catching it in various quickly renewed and repeated glimpses.” Montaigne understands reading as a leisurely activity.13 Reading thus becomes an aesthetic pleasure, and not, as in some of our modern usage, an economic and cultural need.14

Indeed, in our modern sense, reading can even be construed as a mechanical necessity, such as when we say that a machine reads data to enact computations, or RNA reads DNA to construct proteins.15 Thus if something is not read correctly, major errors ensue. The notion of reading errors is not specific to the mechanical age; in fact, the very same impression that makes reading seem a “magical” activity can also lead to assumptions that this magic has a natural logic. “Dogma” is the position that says only certain readings are correct, and these correct readings are only available through a specific method that turns the encoded into the true. Arguing against this is Schleiermacher: “One cannot dismiss allegorical interpretation with the general principle that every utterance can have only One meaning…”16 Interpretation is opposed to mechanical reading; and the boundaries between them are not always clear.

Finally, the double-effect of reading, the third theme drawn from Gadamer’s abstraction, can be refuted either along the lines of mechanical reading or along the lines of a call for more direct methods of communication. Plato, although his theories are very complex, can be understood in this way; for him, the reading of text cannot be a substitute experience at all, and therefore any true understanding is taken to be immediate and singular.17 Doubleness is not possible. From a different approach, Nietzsche confronts doubleness by arguing for interpretations of history that move towards a unity of what he calls “the antithesis of form and content.” A complex argument on its own, Nietzsche’s point can be crudely stated as expressing the need to read in such a way as to aid life and not to be lead about aimlessly by an author’s playfulness. 18

Jared Davis


1. The discussion here will be tilted towards the use of visual perception in reading, but it is assumed that the concept of reading is analogous no matter what perceptive apparatus (eyes in “normal” reading or fingers as in Braille) is used to “read.”

2. Gadamer, pg 156

3. Austin, pg 21-22 and in passim

4. Emerson, “Circles.” The essay is downloadable with Emerson’s collected works via

5. “Are Whole Word Kanji Easier to Learn than Syllable Kana?” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 14, No.1 (1978-1979)

6. The headline for The Sun on Sunday, May 4, 1982. An image is available through the Wikimedia.

7. Gadamer, pg 79

8. See Barthes (1977)

9. See Ginzburg (1992)

10. Monaco, pg 172

11. Deleuze (1986) pg ix

12. Deleuze (1989)

13. Montaigne, “Of Books”

14. There is ambivalence in modern conversations over reading whether the activity ought to be promoted as an aesthetically and culturally valuable or as politically and economically necessary. In Montaigne’s case, the leisure of reading is clearly tied to the leisure of an aristocratic life. For contemporary discussions, see Mark Edmunson, Why Read? (2004) and Paul Tough, “What it takes to make a student” in The New York Times Magazine (November 26, 2006).

15. See the OED definition’s for reading 1.e for computers and draft edition June 2006 for molecular biology.

16. Schleiermacher, pg 15

17. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in Republic VII is the canonical example of this.

18. Untimely Meditations, “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life” section 4.


Austin, JL. How to do things with words. Oxford University Press, 1975.

Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

—. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Edmundson, Mark. Why Read?. Bloomsbury USA, 2005.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays. University Press, Cambridge, 1904.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd revised. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Trans. AC Tadeschi. Johns Hopskins University Press, 1992.

Michel de, Montaigne. The Complete Essays. Trans. Donald M Frame. Stanford University Press, 1958.

Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 3rd. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Meditations. Trans. RJ Hollingdale. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 19 Feb. 2008.

Paul Tough, “What it takes to make a student,” The New York Times Magazine (November 26, 2006).

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics and Criticism. Trans. Andrew Bowie. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Stienberg, Danny and Yamada. “Are Whole Word Kanji Easier to Learn than Syllable Kana?.” Reading Research Quarterly vol. 14 (1979): 88-99.