Why Reading Bodies Are in Danger of Being Forgotten

When thinking about the act of reading, biblical scholars tend to consider what the mind does with texts.1 Such hermeneutic questions are clearly worth raising when you’re reading biblical literature. They’re also critical to ask when you’re reading literature that you think might help you interpret biblical texts. And that’s true whether that potentially helpful literature comes from authors more or less ancient and culturally distant from you.

But as ways of addressing the way you read, these questions are entirely cognitive. They consider how your mind encounters texts primary and secondary. How do you understand what you see on the page?2

All of this begins to raise the fundamental absence of the reading body in how biblical scholars tend to think about how reading happens.3 This absence is hardly unique to biblical studies.4 And the reading body does (dis)appear in biblical scholarship for perhaps the same three reasons as it does so elsewhere.

1. Reading is most prototypically visual, and vision is a distance sense.

The sense of touch requires immediate physical contact to operate. Or it at least requires a chain of immediate physical contact. You can, in a way, “feel” the texture of a boiling pot of soup. But to do so, you’ll need to stir it by grasping a heat-safe utensil. Similarly, you can taste the soup, but only once it cools enough to safely put some of it in your mouth.

By contrast, the senses of hearing, smelling, and seeing can operate at a distance. And because vision is a distance sense, visual encounter with text in reading allows the hermeneutic space for readers to be more forgetful of how they are perceptually crossing the distance between themselves and what they are reading.5

2. Readers think about reading through the lens of mind-body dualism.

Whatever particular historical figures or movements one might wish to cite, mind-body dualism has a longstanding influence in many areas. In this environment, reading has often been considered a “mental” activity. As such, it is not a bodily activity, or it is an activity whose bodily aspects are unimportant.6

3. Forgetfulness of the body can be pragmatically useful to the act of reading.

A basketball player can hardly play full-out while also working to improve his technique.7 Similarly, when reading, it makes some sense that the body would “recede[] from awareness as we focus attention on the goal of the activity [of reading] rather than the physical procedures it entails.”8 So, there’s a certain efficiency to “allowing … perceptions and activities to operate smoothly, without the distraction of self-consciousness and particularly of body-consciousness.”9

Thinking about what your body is doing while you’re reading pulls attention away from the reading. Similarly, if you’re, say, reading someone’s interpretation of Romans, it’s hardly possible to understand that author better by speculating about how that person’s reading body.

You can’t directly connect particular ways bodies read to particular interpretive outcomes. Interpretation as such happens in the mind. So, perhaps it’s pragmatically useful for peripheral questions about reading bodies not to cloud more central issues of the interpretations that come out of their readings.


Of these reasons for forgetting the reading body, the first two are purely preparatory. They help create conditions in which reading bodies get forgotten, but they don’t themselves create the forgetfulness.

The pragmatic usefulness of forgetting the reading body is by far the greatest incentive to forgetting it. But for all its possible utility, this forgetfulness can also negatively impact your reading. So, there is also utility in reckoning with these negative effects and considering carefully how to mitigate or eliminate them.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. Or for seeing, one might substitute hearing, as in the case of spoken texts, or feeling as in the case of texts written in braille. 

  3. For raising this issue, I am grateful to Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  4. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10, 20, 34. 

  5. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 24. This situation, of course, does not apply at all—or at least only by distant metaphor—to the reading of braille text, where touch is immediately required. 

  6. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 11, 13. 

  7. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 26–27; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  8. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10. 

  9. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10. 

Some of the links above may be “affiliate links.” If you make a purchase or sign up for a service through one of these links, I may receive a small commission from the seller. This process involves no additional cost to you and helps defray the costs of making content like this available. For more information, please see these affiliate disclosures.

2 responses to “Why Reading Bodies Are in Danger of Being Forgotten”

  1. Matthew Miller Avatar
    Matthew Miller

    Dr. Stark,
    Thank you for addressing this issue. As I was reading your post, I kept thinking about the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I think his phenomenology of perception deals with some of these issues as in our proper way of being-toward-the-world as less thinker towards the world and more as lived reality. He draws much from Heidegger, Husserl, et. al. I think that a phenomenological peering forth at what we do holds great potential for hermeneutics. In terms of Scripture, it seems that posture is illuminated more in the biblical text and worldview than in our own culture. I have often thought of hermeneutics more as a posture than method. Perhaps our own embodiment in being toward the text from our point of perception has much to do with what we gather from the text. In other words, we cannot understand the text if we are not in a posture of “being-in-hearing”, an embodied receptivity to engagement with the form of the text as a work of art presencing the realities it conveys through linguisticality preserved in a fitting literary format. Looking at paintings of the biblical writers, monks, and scholars helps me to see the posture of scholarship…although often I see them depicted with a hand on the head in misery. I am well acquainted with that posture. 🙂 I look forward to your next post. As always, thanks for your insight and assistance!

    1. J. David Stark Avatar

      Thanks so much, Matthew, and good call with the connection to Merleau-Ponty! His work would certainly be a profitable additional dialog partner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.