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