Reading Machines


One of the key attributes of reading is that – with very few exceptions – nobody else can do it for you. You have to plough through the whole thing yourself, or bounce from chapter to endnote, as is your wont: but nobody else can absorb the information on your behalf. (If a text can be reduced to a pre-digested summary, it was too long to begin with: or the digest is an incomplete representation.)

Reading is a rivalrous activity. You can listen to music or watch TV while doing something else, but you can’t (or shouldn’t) read a book while driving or mixing cocktails. Listening to audiobooks is only a partial work-around; studies suggest that knowledge retention is lower. Furthermore, they’re slower. A normal tempo for spoken English language speech is around 150-200 words per minute. A reasonably fast reader, however, can read 300-350 words per minute; a speed reader may absorb 500-1000 words per minute (although issues of comprehension come into play at that rate).

So, what kind of environment facilitates reading?

About fifteen years ago, I stumbled across my perfect reading machine – and didn’t buy it. It was on display in the window of an antique shop in Edinburgh, Scotland: a one of a kind piece of furniture, somewhat threadbare and time-worn, and obviously commissioned for a Victorian gentleman who spent much of his time reading.

In form, it was an armchair – but not a conventional one. Every available outer surface, including the armrests, consisted of bookshelves. The backrest (shielded from behind by a built-in bookcase) was adjustable, using a mechanism familiar to victims of badly-designed beach recliners everywhere. Behind the hinged front of the chair was a compartment from which an angled ottoman or footstool could be removed; this was a box, suitable for the storage of yet more books. A lap-tray on a hinge, supporting a bookrest, swung across the chair’s occupant from the left; it also supported brackets for oil lamps, and a large magnifying glass on an arm. The right arm of the chair was hinged and latched at the front, allowing the reader to enter and exit from the reading machine without disturbing the fearsome array of lamps, lenses and pages. The woodwork was polished, dark oak: the cushion covers were woven, and somewhat threadbare (attacked either by moths or the former owner’s neglected feline).

While the ergonomics of the design were frankly preindustrial, the soft furnishings threadbare, and the price outrageous, I recognized instinctively that this chair had been designed very carefully to support a single function. It wasn’t a dining chair, or a chair in which one might sip a wee dram of post-prandial whisky or watch TV. It was a machine for reading in: baroque in design, but as starkly functional as an airport or a motorway.

I knew on the spot and of an instant that I had to own this reading machine. For that is what this thing was: an artifact designed for the sole purpose of excluding distractions and facilitating the focused absorption of information from books. Unfortunately, in those days I was younger and poorer than I am today – and the antique store owner, clearly aware of its unique appeal, had priced it accordingly. I went away, slept uneasily, returned the next afternoon to steel myself for expending a large chunk of my personal savings on an item that was not strictly essential to my life…and it had already gone.

Chair and ottoman designed by Charles EamesThese days, I do most of my reading on a small and not particularly prepossessing sofa in one corner of my office. I’m waiting for the cats to shred it sufficiently to give me an excuse for replacing it with a better reading machine. When the time comes I will go hunting for something more comfortable: an Eames lounge chair and ottoman. Combined with an e-ink reader (with an edge-lit display for twilight reading), it approximates the function (if not the form, or the bizarre charm) of the eccentric Victorian reading machine that still haunts my dreams to this day.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons