Hygiene in Reading, an extract

by Patrick Williams


The pieces in this series use Edmund Burke Huey's 1908 volume The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading; with a Review of the History of Reading and Writing and of Methods, Texts, and Hygiene in Reading as a source text. Each piece draws its language only from the words in a single chapter of the book, the particular chapter indicated by the Roman numeral beneath each piece.


In the Dark His Gestures Could Not Be Read

South of Franklin, Pennsylvania, children who cannot speak express a pantomimic form of emotion. They grew up together from infancy. In the woods one day, they discovered partially unearthed skulls, bones, and teeth preserved from remote ages. Also: a pipe, some zigzags, and a little grass. In the library, they found the records of their origin. The legend goes like this: running wild through early North America, a man brandished his whip, striking a child on the shoulder blade. The child became two children, and so on and so on. In time (like six thousand years), all the resulting people were deprived of picture books. Now, picture a man with hands outstretched, indicating "nothing." He was shouting after his uncultured friends. He was supposed to nourish them with his own blood. This he did. Germs from the mind of this man almost killed all his fellows. He was the unrealized successor to every ancient flint-flake hunter.



Contemporary Science Stories

Kindly permit me to almost quote Sir Isaac Newton: practically every ordinary thing falls with the quickness. Waking up and poring over and then plotting all of my preliminary data, I found abnormalities in how different forms of matter fall or pause in memory. Indeed, my difficulty in science comprehension is a serious hindrance when dealing with printed symbols. But memory is the medium of slow power. Evidently, our secondary school psychologist tabulated the plodding pace as well. He found the slowest rhythmic tendency of my introspections (and I say this hesitatingly) fairly cool and detached. My habitual dwelling upon opinions of bad form had been pretty extensive, so we must consider this result somewhat desirable.



The Habit-Forming Epoch

The civilized adult is strongly ear-minded due to our grandfathers’ stumbling written appeal for schools to throw out mathematics and logic. Then, our dissatisfied parents taught us their own habits of stifling mechanical movements and keeping their lack of will to live to themselves. Now we have nerve strain and the cold medium of industrial music. Other activities were strenuously struggled for and methodized over, but every option was conspicuously ill-fitted to an environment of personal hunger: either a great waste of time or a scheme for the benefit of some creep. Only this new radical motive of expressionless monotony positions listlessness and mind-wandering as good for the development of well-grounded children. We know it benumbs some, but Patrick sways in delight.



With Long Teeth and Upon Returning Later

Why does he only draw cartoons out of sequence? Recall the disquieting modern imagery. He wants to say it all at once, just as he thinks it. He is fond of making protoplasmic free arrangements, composing a typographic mystery from the lack of fixed order in his speech. His complicated systems are hand-made from the barest rudiments: oblong pieces of lead, linen rags, gun advertisements. Consider the cost of materials. Given no constraint, he could collate the documents of his ordinary life in every conceivable spatial arrangement, to be read as a beaver strips bark. This is why librarians repeatedly take his rough memoranda out of the safe for young mechanics to read.



"I am not a bird."

Generally, long texts are slowly analyzed until their constituent sounds come to consciousness, but that was way too slow for us. We use a synthetic method of surveying texts in combination. Scientific American has a distinctive total sound, appearance, and meaning, as does Through the Looking Glass. We like to compare these with an index of absent texts. We catalogue stories, poems, photographs, and debris in little pamphlets, most of which contain some object or scene interesting to a child. The reading-matter is of the typical disjointed, unnatural kind which the child should never be permitted to see. It short-circuits their thinking and they run away. They had never before thought of running away. They had never seen anything but school. They did not know there was anything else to see. No wonder the teachers withhold their names. In a gesture of warning, George takes along a type-written copy of his script to read aloud later: I have a knife. He expresses his artistic side. Our actual aim is to breathe very gently, because we only ever say this one sentence: I can do many things.



Dealing with Youth

Classics are voted classic not because they are old, but because they are impregnate with peculiar quantum mechanical lessons. Purely adult business; children should never be permitted to read them. Instead, offer a thought experiment: "What humorous and humanizing lessons would an alien culture learn as it experiences earthly life?" Before long, consideration of the question develops into a scrappy mania for reading the wildest modern literature, and more of the child's soul will disappear. Later, if needed, a timid girl stages psychic dark masses for those who have not been allowed to die.



Imagery, After-image, Feeling, etc.

Ignorant opticians and misguided spectacle peddlers often suggest people read by artificial light, despite its tendency to heat the eyeball. A page read in such conditions is almost always accompanied by the atrophy of our psycho-physical functionings. For home reading tasks, boys and girls should be placed at sufficient distance, never the former without the latter, to cause constant tension for long periods of time. Whenever they go about they feel like objects launched from a blurring railroad train. If there is pessimism, it is only because they are susceptible to mind control. Being seen is itself a form of abuse. When walking, they move rapidly, with frequent changes of course. There is no need for rifle-aim precision, but minimizing surveillance is a neurally expensive process. Even in psychic economics, we cannot get something for nothing.