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Five Things We Didn’t Know About Reading

1. When reading took hold in Germany in the late 1700s, a group of German intellectuals warned that it endangers your body and mind. They believed that books, particularly works of narrative fiction, have the power to immobilize their audience. Reading renders people inactive, lazy, and practically useless.

Reading was described as an addiction. The philosopher Johann Fichte wrote: “Reading, like any other narcotic, lulls one into a sweet oblivion.”

2. The notion of “invisible movement” was invented around 1800 as a way to counter the accusation that reading is a debilitating narcotic. Sure, the argument runs, books can seem to make people passive, lethargic, and isolated. But inwardly, books involve a great deal of effort and concentration. Though it appears that the reader is still and passive, the mind is moving all the time.

3. Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis weigh into the reading debate in the late 1800s. Freud does not locate that movement [of the mind] in the reader. He locates it in the author, be it the author of a poem, a dream, or a traumatic symptom. He describes desires, thoughts, and associations moving back and forth in the mind.

4. In the 20th century the Canadian poet Anne Carson described poetry as “an action of the mind captured on a page.” For Carson, when you engage with a poem, you’re set in motion: “You are moving with somebody else’s mind through an action.’’

5. When we trace the movement of meaning in a poem or photograph, when we follow the movement of an author’s train of thought, when a book sets our understanding in motion and our faculties to work, this is when reading moves us. This is how we allow ourselves to be moved by reading—by letting the movement of language move us.

Quotes from Associate Professor of German Brian Tucker ’98 and his LaFollette Lecture, “The Invisible Movement That Reading Is.”