The Simple Ways Your Body Shapes Your Reading

The body frequently gets left out of accounts of reading in biblical studies.1 But even so, it continues to have hermeneutic effects. These effects aren’t the same as they can be in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole. But they’re real nonetheless.

The Body’s Two-fold Influence on Reading

Particularly if you’ve ever taken an extended amount of time to worked through a text of any length or complexity, you’ve experienced these kinds of effects firsthand. They could be negative or render reading more difficult—as in the case of the “hungry judges.” But your body’s effects on your reading efforts can also be quite positive and productive.

Negative Effects

For instance, in terms of the challenges that reading places on the body, maybe

  • After you’ve bent over a text too long, your body says you need to straighten up, so you do.
  • The day grows late, and your eyes start to feel dry, so you take a pause to rub and remoisten them.
  • You hear an unexpectedly loud noise, so you look around to it and instantly—if only instantaneously—forget about the text you were reading.
  • You smell the coffee a colleague started brewing and realize how your own “Joe” needs to stand a bit taller in your mug to be an adequate companion for the next section of text.
  • Your hand cramps as you try to write yet another complex note in an overly small margin. So, you decide to abbreviate the comment and hope that your future self will still understand the thought you had while reading.

Positive Effects

On the other hand, your body can express a kind of cognition that you’re not consciously aware of but that aids your reading efforts.2

Perhaps the print you’re trying to read is too small. You make no conscious effort to account for this fact. But you suddenly find you’ve leaned forward to the text or brought it closer to you.

Reading in one position grows uncomfortable, so you adjust how you’re sitting or standing without perhaps being aware of particularly choosing a new position.

The daylight by which you’ve been reading starts to grow dim, so you instinctively find yourself adjusting the lighting so you can better see your material.

You’re unable to make a note on the text as you would like, so you reorient yourself in relation to the text so that you can express your thoughts about it.


In short, many or all of the ways your body reads overcome the challenges presented by that task. They are, for all their uniqueness and oddity, ways of reading. They’re ways of continuing to encounter the text before you as a biological organism and not a rigid automaton. And continuation in that demanding task can be no small feat, one that ultimately requires and not just tolerates readerly bodies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. E.g., see Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 25–26, 56, 72. 

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5 responses to “The Simple Ways Your Body Shapes Your Reading”

  1. Daryl Docterman Avatar
    Daryl Docterman

    Excellent, David! Bobby Fisher kept himself in excellent shape in order to become and remain a great chess player. He swam a lot and used to practice holding his breath under water for as long as he could. I think we greatly underestimate the importance of reading with our bodies. Daryl Docterman

    1. Matthew Miller Avatar
      Matthew Miller

      Great examples!

    2. J. David Stark Avatar

      I think you’re right, Daryl. I know I have.

  2. Matthew Miller Avatar
    Matthew Miller

    I appreciate your continuation of this series of reflections and find it fascinating. I am curious as to how the body is affected by reading in different formats when it comes to analog as opposed to digital reading. For instance, reading on a site with numerous images and advertisements, various articles with peripheral tools to navigate pages, 20 tabs opened with articles in the queue, or blue light emittance while reading, not ink, but pixels should be considered in terms of their effects on the reading body as compared to reading a 6×9 trim size print paperback with a 9 point black font with margins and no glare. Anecdotally, I find myself much more fatigued after a day of reading font on screens than on paper. Does this means of being-with reading material affect our intentionality and comprehension of such? Heidegger liked to talk about “mood” (Stimmung) as not something that we are either in or out of but a fundamental way of being which unfolds the world before us. In other words, I am always in a mood, to be in the world is to be in a mood, and whatever mood I am in opens up the world in that disposition. I am, therefore, positioned to understand the world in a variety of ways based upon mood. This sounds hermeneutical to me. If Heidegger is correct (I am sure this is debatable) I am wondering how reading bodies affect mood and reversely how we engage with the text and in what format affects mood, and therefore, what I understand as disclosed to me within that mood through what I am reading and through what format it occurs. Again, the mood of the hungry judge affects his ruling and understanding, the mood of the scholar affects what is disclosed to us through a text. As always, thanks for the fruitful dialogue Dr. Stark!

    1. J. David Stark Avatar

      Some great points here, Matthew! I may try to come back to some of this as I round up the series—not with any definitive answers, but I totally agree that these things are certainly worth pondering.

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