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What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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3 The experience of reading

You may already relate to the idea that our experience of reading can feel almost magical. Many of you will have observed how absorbed children can become when being read to and you may well have had a similar experience yourself, when reading a great book on the beach in your holidays for example. In such instances you can become so immersed in the story and its characters that it can feel like you are wrenched from the world in the story when something drags you back to reality.

This image shows a person in a bookshop reading a book.

The writer Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), most famous for his fiction set in and around the First World War, also writes brilliantly about a real-life experience of this phenomenon. During his time as a soldier, near the Belgian front in the early autumn of 1916, he found himself unable to sleep:

I came in at two o’clock in the morning after a job of trench digging behind Kemmel Hill [a strategically important hill formation]. And as I was unable to sleep I took up the Red Badge of Courage [an 1895 novel about the American Civil War by the American writer Stephen Crane] and read it till dawn. Toward five I got up and looked out through my tent flap. The mother-of-pearl light from the east threw a mother-of-pearl wash of color over the innumerable tents of a sleeping division. The stillness was absolute. But what worried me was the men bending over the red brands of some small wood fires. They were dressed in greenish dust color: it seemed to me they should have been in blue. And it gave my mind an extraordinary wrench to come back to the realisation that I was where and when I was, instead of being upon the Potomac half a century ago, so great was the illusion set up by this marvelous book.

The novel Ford is reading is ‘so marvelous’ (or ‘magical’ to go back to the word at the top of this section) that he finds himself confused by the uniforms he sees when he emerges from his tent. He was fully expecting to be met by the historical reality created so vividly by his book, rather than the reality of the war he was himself engaged in. There’s an ‘extraordinary wrench’, a kind of screech of mental and visual gears changing, as he realises that he’s not part of the American Civil War after all. Perhaps most importantly, Ford thinks it’s vital to pass on to his readers that this kind of experience is possible as a direct result of reading. He writes about this memory several times across his career, demonstrating its significance.

This sense of being dragged out of the story world, and back into reality is something that you will return to in an activity shortly.

Activity 4 Thoughts and feelings

Before you take part in the next reading task, to prepare, answer some questions about yourself. These questions come from an established psychological scale which has 28 items and measures how you react interpersonally, and also measures some interesting aspects about your thoughts and feelings. It may seem a little long with 28 items to respond to, but when you have completed the questions you will learn a little more about what the questions were designed to measure. The responses you give here will be private and will not be stored or shared with anyone else.

The following statements enquire about your thoughts and feelings in a variety of situations. For each item, indicate how well it describes you on a scale from A, does not describe me well, to E, describes me very well, by choosing the appropriate letter on the scale. When you have decided on your answer, click on the appropriate letter.

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In the next section you will be introduced to what these scores measure and will find out a little more about the questions you have answered.