Print | PDF
Amodern 6: Reading the Illegible


A Project

Kate Briggs

Reading and Living

“The Story in It” is a twenty-one page short story by Henry James, first published in 1902.1 Three characters appear: Maud Blessingbourne, a guest; Mrs. Dyott, her host; and Colonel Voyt, who visits. We discover as we read that Maud is secretly in love in with Colonel Voyt. Mrs Dyott has guessed as much and tells the Colonel, who had no idea. Together they laugh about it. (What Maud doesn’t know, and what the reader discovers only late in the story, is that Mrs Dyott and the Colonel are having a secret affair). So Mrs Dyott and the Colonel are complicit in a way that excludes Maud. Meanwhile, Maud is enjoying her own set of private relations which, at least to a certain extent, exclude them: because, unlike the Colonel or Mrs Dyott, Maud reads. More specifically, she reads novels: a great quantity of them, one after the other after the other. Early on in the story Mrs Dyott admits that she has never heard of the books that Maud is so keen to spend time with. Maud replies: “‘Oh, you dear thing!’ Maud was amused, yet almost showed pity. ‘I know you don’t read […] but why should you? You live!’”2

At stake in James’s story is this relation between reading and living, literature and life. The exchange between Maud and her host invites us to think about how reading might be different from or even opposed to life. How it might serve as a retreat from or alternative to living, while at the same time clearly being part of it: clearly inflecting it, clearly structuring it, at least for a reader like Maud. But James’s story also asks the same question from the other direction. It invites us to consider what aspects of life might be worth reading. In other words, what of life might be significant or momentous or interesting enough to transpose into literature, to be written up as literature, in the form of a novel. Or, if not a novel, then perhaps something a bit smaller, a form that is not quite so expanded, not quite on such a grand scale: a story, for example.

Maud is quietly in love with the Colonel. Mrs Dyott has guessed as much and towards the end of the story she tells him of her discovery, and together they laugh about it. Together they agree that while Maud’s unrequited feeling might, at a stretch, be described as a kind of “shy romance,” it couldn’t possibly compare with their own. Their romance, they decide, is of a wholly different order. Their affair is the stuff of stories and novels, and would surely make a writer’s fortune if ever they were to find one up to the mark. Maud’s feeling, on the other hand, is but a “small, scared, starved, subjective satisfaction.” No, they’re both quite sure: there’s no real interest there. Indeed, as the Colonel wonders aloud, in the very last line of the story: “Who but a duffer […] would see the shadow of a story in it?”3 A duffer – meaning a fool, an idiot, an unthinking person; a word that is supposed have its origins in eighteenth century thieves’ slang, meaning to dress an old thing up, to make it new. “Who but a duffer would see the shadow of a story in it?” By the end of the story, Henry James has self-consciously positioned himself as the duffer who risked making a story out of the small scared subjective relation that two out of his three characters dismiss as having not even the shadow of a story in it.


Garden-Path Sentences

“The Story in It” opens with Maud and Mrs Dyott in the drawing room. Mrs Dyott is busy writing letters, Maud is busy reading one of her novels (this one is wrapped in lemon-colored paper). Outside it is raining hard.

The weather had turned so much worse that the rest of the day was certainly lost. The wind had risen and the storm gathered force; they gave from time to time a thump at the firm windows and dashed even against those protected by the verandah their vicious splotches of rain. Beyond the lawn, beyond the cliff, the great wet brush of the sky dipped deep into the sea. But the lawn, already vivid with the touch of May, showed a violence of watered green; the budding shrubs and trees repeated the note as they tossed their thick masses, and the cold, troubled light, filling the pretty drawing-room, marked the spring afternoon as sufficiently young.4

Those are quite strikingly complicated sentences, or so it seems to me. Especially the second one, with the splotches of rain that we realize, only very late, are what are being dashed against the windows under the cover of the verandah by the combined agency of the wind and the storm.

In my attempts to get a handle on its complexity, I discovered that there exists a special class of sentences called “garden path” sentences, named after the expression “to be led down the garden path,” or to be misled. Garden path sentences are sentences that are grammatically correct but misleading. The first part of such a sentence sets up the route ahead, allowing us to start building what linguists call a structure of meaning. But then we encounter a word or phrase that seems suddenly inconsistent with the structure we are in the process of building. Garden path sentences produce a brief moment of bewilderment in the reader: they interrupt or fork our path through a sentence, forcing us to go back to the beginning and work our way through it again, revising our structure, only this time with the fork in the path up ahead in mind.

Here is an example of a garden path sentence: The old man the boat. With “the old man” our sense of the sentence is being orientated in one direction; with “the boat” our progress is abruptly thwarted, or stalled. Interestingly, though, the ambiguity of the garden path sentence can often be resolved in speech. Saying it out loud – “The old man the boat” – I can make clear that “The old” is meant to work as a collective noun while “man” is a verb, in the sense of being present, working something, supplying the labour. The old man the boat. The sentence choreographs the sequence of connected responses it requires, moving from reading, to bewilderment, to re-reading with a new attentiveness, to a resolution. In this short descriptive sentence we could say there is both a story (the sequence of reading events as they are experienced by the reader) and, in James’s terms, a story in it (the small shot of satisfaction at discovering the same word can be read first as a noun and then as a verb).

Thinking about how garden-path sentences work has helped to clarify what the experience of reading Henry James is often like for me: I am reading and at the same time I am made to feel conscious of the effort of reading, of having to go back over a sentence or a section of a sentence and begin again in order to proceed to the next, of working backwards in order to move forwards. Reading Henry James is nothing like a flow, an unfolding; it is rarely immersive. Reading Henry James, I am made to feel conscious of the action of reading, of reading as an action.5


One of Those Long Exposure Photographs of Stars in the Sky

Between October and December 2014, I struck up a correspondence with a UK-based scientist named Dr. Sam Hutton. Sam is an experimental psychologist, with a specialist interest in eye-movement. At the beginning of our exchange I sent him this image with the instruction to simply write what he sees. What follows are selections from our emails to each other.

Huey image

Hello Kate. Okay, so I see an early recording of eye movements – a scanpath showing the classic “fixate-saccade-fixate” pattern we make when we look at things. The fixations (when the eye is still and we take in visual information) appear here as the clusters or blobs of white. The saccades (which are the rapid eye movements that move our point of gaze from one location to another) appear as lines. From the way the fixations and saccades are distributed it is clear that the person being recorded is reading text. They must be reading text that is written from left to right (like English) because there is always a big saccade from the right hand side of the image back to what I am assuming is the beginning of the next line on the left – resulting in the “zig-zagging” scanpath you get with reading. The tiny white dots look like individual samples – I don’t know who made the recording, or what technology they used – but I am guessing that it may have involved some kind of flashing light that was reflected from the eye. Each flash of light would have made a single dot (with the location of the dot dependent on the eye’s position). Perhaps the bits where the line is broken are blinks (so nothing reflected off the eye). I wish I knew what they were reading; but it looks to me like the text must have been relatively simple, or even familiar to the person reading it. The reading looks very fluent. I can tell this because there are no regressions back to an earlier point in the text. But that’s me responding as a scientist. Now: you were asking me just to tell you what I see. I see something like one of those long exposure photographs of stars in the night sky. Or those plots that people show of the aftermath of particle collision. Or the representation of the movements of a ship in the sea searching for something. I know I find the image pleasing. Why is that? It is simple white on black / blobs and lines / general horizontal structure but complex at the same time. The blobs aren’t regularly spaced, the lines curve and have gaps, there is an asymmetry caused by the lines in the middle extending so far to the right. When I look at it I am impressed – not the right word, uplifted, gladdened – also not the right words – by the curiosity that must have driven whoever it was to make it. But what are you thinking?
Well, I should tell you that I first came across this image in a fantastic book called The Physiology of the Novel by Nicholas Dames; I then looked up the book where he found it, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading by Edmund Burke Huey, which was first published in 1908.6 And I remember thinking to myself:
Okay, so this is what reading looks like and…: look at it, it’s beautiful.
It’s actually a woodcut. Made from a photograph. Of a piece of smoked paper. And, yeah, it is one of the very earliest recordings of eye-movement in reading. In terms of how they did it, as far as I understand it, they made a little cup from plaster of Paris that would fit over the eyeball in one eye, I suppose a bit like a contact lens; the cup had a tiny hole drilled into it so the reader could see through it; the other eye was left free; then – attached to the cup was a lever made of celloidin glass which was itself connected to an aluminum pointer, that was suspended over the smoked paper surface of a moving drum cylinder; the pointer would scratch out the trace of the eye’s movement as the reader read.
Hi Kate. Okay, so I looked up the book you mentioned because I was aware of the technique you described, but from your description I couldn’t figure out how they got those smaller dots in the image, which I think they must have used to make comparisons of the speed of the eye movements in different parts of the trace. So I read on a bit further: so, yeah, the cup worn on the eye, attached to a lever attached to a pointer, but then “an electric current was passed through the pointer to the drum; this current was interrupted at very regular short intervals by the vibrations of an electrically driven tuning-fork, the snap of the spark from the pointer’s tip thus displacing a dot of soot on the paper record at each interruption; as the pointed flitted over the drum during the reading, a tracing was thus produced like that shown in Figure 2.”7 Listen to the language: the “snap of the spark” as the pointer “flitted” over the drum. Now try to imagine the whole system in operation – the pointer flitting back and forth, the hum of the tuning fork and the buzz and sight of a hundred sparks a second flashing from the tip of the pointer to the rotating drum – leaving traces scratched into the soot of the smoked paper that are so fragile they need to be preserved by photography and then reproduced with a woodcut.
Wow, yeah. I’m with you. That’s extraordinary.


A Remarkable Specific Performance

A year prior to entering into this correspondence, and prompted by the image of this early recording, I had written to Sam out of the blue to ask if – using current, non-invasive eye-tracking technology – he might be interested in helping me make a record of my own reading. One of the texts I took along to our first meeting was a 21-page Henry James story titled “The Story in It.” I hadn’t actually read the story beforehand. My first-time reading, and the simultaneous real-time recording, took 17 minutes and 54 seconds to complete. This is the first page:


Story in It page 1

I keep thinking of Sam’s metaphor: a ship plotting its course. And what strikes me first about the image we made is this: if the eye is navigating over the space of the page then its course looks fairly set. When looking at a page of writing my eyes could, in theory, go anywhere: I could look up, I could look away, I could close my eyes, I could stop reading altogether. But apparently I don’t. It seems that when I undertake to read a page I enter into some kind of agreement. More or less, I submit to its suggested path, which has been decided for me not only by the course of Henry James’s sentences but also by how those sentences have been typeset in the particular edition I am reading. A different edition of the story would produce a different record. Sam tells me that of all visual activity reading is the one where the eye’s movements are most guided, most directed, most choreographed, by what is being looked at.

The image makes visible my willingness to be led. But, at the same time, it shows how wayward, how skittish my reading path is. There’s a moment in Hélène Cixous’s lectures on reading and writing when she describes reading as a flight in broad daylight: an escape, in full view of everyone.8 (This is precisely why she reads: like Maud, perhaps, it is to exercise her right to escape.) I am willingly directed when I read; this submission to direction is precisely the pact of reading and an important part of its pleasure. But it seems to me that the image shows, nevertheless, a tension between compliance and defiance. I want to escape, and in order to escape I need to keep reading. And yet, as I read, it is as if my eyes are trying hard not to skip off the page, in their own agitated bid for freedom. As Nicholas Dames points out, physiologically speaking, there is nothing calm about reading. It is fast. Dangerously fast, and jumpy, and irregular, or so thought the scientists who first recorded the astonishing speed of the eye’s saccades from one zone of text to the next. The term saccades, I learn from Dames, is a reference to “the sudden jerking of a ship’s sail when caught by the wind.”9

If Sam had read the story, or if anyone else were to read the story, and to record it, then their record would look more or less like this: their eyes would have followed a broadly similar path, moving from left to right, top to bottom. The line would always begin, like mine, at around the middle of the left-hand margin. This is because with each new page he would have needed to focus on that same spot, as I did, in order to reconnect his eye with the camera (in that and other obvious ways these were very artificial reading conditions). Their record would look more or less like this, but not exactly like this. There are so many other factors in play, starting with the speed and fluency with which each of us read; the words or sequences of words that, to me, were surprising or confusing, and so needed to be read twice; the passages where I sped up or slowed down; the words I skipped over not necessarily because of anything to do with the writing itself, but because of the quality of light in the room, or some distraction, or some other thought or association particular to me. For example, when displayed as a sequence of still images, I can see that the lines of my reading path are quite densely packed at the start. I was reading hard. But at a certain point in the recording, somewhere toward the middle of the story, the lines start to open out. This is because the story begins with long passages of description, and then moves into dialogue, and the interchanges of speech are normally laid out with more space around them on the page. But it is also because, when I started the recording, I had only just met Sam. I had found him by googling eye-tracking research. He was essentially a stranger. And yet, just a few minutes after shaking hands and laughing about our unlikely project, I found myself sitting next to him, in silence, trying to concentrate on reading what would turn out to be a particularly tricky story by Henry James. I remember feeling incredibly self-conscious and concentrated as the recording started, and this concentration is visible in the records we made: in the first few pages my eyes move repeatedly back and forth over the same lines, and fixate for relatively long stretches on certain words. But as the process went on it seems that I did get caught up in the story: my reading speeded up, and towards the end I was making almost no regressions at all. Huey, in whose book, via Dames, I found the woodcut, describes reading as a “remarkable specific performance.”10 Each reading is a remarkable specific performance. I like it that the visual record of own my specific performance should register something of what I just described: a move from self-conscious, cautious, concentrated reading – a reading-drawing made from very densely packed lines, as in the first page –, to some other state: to being briefly transported by the story, to a freer, open drawing, as in the recording we made of page 18. An escape in full view of a stranger – my flight in broad daylight:

Story in It page 17


Reading as Over-Writing

Sam and I made this record, and I would look at the pages of lines, on and off, for a while, with a degree of fascination. But then I realized that what interests me is the specificity of a reading experience: the fact that there is no such thing as reading-in-general, generic reading, for the simple reason that one is always reading something. Reading is always this specific relationship between one body in particular and one sequence of sentences in particular. And in this case what was being read was a story by Henry James called “The Story in It.” On that basis, I decided that it would make more sense to look at the record like this:

Story in It page 1 overlaid

If someone were to ask me: “So what is the story with this eye-tracking project? What is the point of it? Where is the work in it?” One answer might be: it is here, in this small gesture of overwriting the story with the line of my reading. And then perhaps in publishing the story, as such, again. (As a way of acknowledging, through this one act, the countless embodied eyes that have passed over the story in the century and a bit since it was first offered up for reading?)11


Sky-Dipped Sky-Deep

What are we doing when we read? Nicholas Dames tells us that Emile Javal was the first to discover, “that the passage of the eyes across text is not continuous.” Instead, “the reader divides the lines [of a text] into sections of around ten letters each, which are seen during rhythmically recurring rest periods; the movement from one section to the next happens in an extremely rapid leap, during which vision does not happen.”12 Struck by this, by the thought that reading also involves not seeing, I became increasingly curious about these blobs of black on the record: the visual indications of where my eye had rested. I wanted to know which of Henry James’s words gave my eyes pause. To think about this further, Sam and I transcribed the words of the story that I had fixated – that is, briefly rested upon – in the order of my fixation, according to the eye-tracker data. When I regressed to look again at a word, we included these as repetitions. All the words that were not “seen” were omitted. Or, to put it another way, we wrote out the story as it had been abbreviated and re-sequenced by my skipping eyes. The first few sentences read like this:

Story The Story In It.
Weather had so much that the rest the certainly lost. Wind had and risen the storm gathered force; gave from from to time a thump. The windows dashed against even against protected protected the those veranda their splotches vicious of rain. The beyond cliff great wet brush sky dipped sky deep the. But lawn already with the touch May, showed violence watered violence watered green;

Two things interest me about this new piece of writing. The first is that when I re-read this new sequence I can hear something of the to and fro, the back and forth motion of my eyes. The bodily rhythm of my reading is there in the repetition; the transcription makes those rhythmically recurring rest periods audible. The second relates to what has happened to the title: “Story the Story in It,” where “Story” is now also a verb. What is it, or could it be, to story something? Specifically, to story an existing story? Might this offer a way of describing the sequence of exercises Sam and I had undertaken? That is, the process of taking an extant story, submitting it to a reading process, making a record of what happened, and then making that record into the material for something new?


Story the Story in It

Generally speaking, I find it hard to concentrate when I read Henry James’s sentences. I often find myself pausing half-way through a line, and having to go back to the beginning in order to start working my way through again. Clearly, though, I don’t dislike this difficulty – clearly, in choosing to read a writer like Henry James, I am seeking that difficulty out. I deliberately selected a story by James and chose to record my first time reading of it because I was interested in what the kind of slow, labored reading that his prose demands of me might produce, visually speaking. Clearly, I am not easily put off by difficulty, but still I recognize that the re-ordered transcript is very tricky to parse: the prepositions are either missing or in the wrong place, the syntax is broken. And it struck me that this might be a perverse outcome of this project. That is, to end up with a new piece of writing that just frustrates reading, causing it to stop. So in the last and most recent phase of the project I have been undertaking to write the story again in such a way that registers all these re-sequencings, these repetitions, these elisions. But also in such a way that the sentences still function as sentences, allowing for, I hope even inviting, further reading. Here is the first paragraph:

Story the Story in It
Weather then had so much water. All violence watered violence watered green. Sky dipped wet notes gave from time to time a thump against firm windows and the lawn touched vivid with the touch of spring. A pretty drawing-room filled with troubled light: two ladies seated in the silence of occupation. The first with letters; the second a guest settled on a small sofa in a choice corner of choice. About her a palm-tree. Also flowers, a screen, a stool, a stand, a bowl, and flowers. She, Maud, turning audibly though at intervals neither brief regular nor regular regular the leaves of a book (cover covered lemon-colored).

This is where I now am: I have a trace of my reading path (my reading-drawing), I have “The Story in It” overwritten with that path, I have a version of that same story which makes audible the back and forth of my reading eyes but whose sentences frustrate reading. And I have the story, or maybe something more like the shadow of a story, newly re-composed (in a version that is much shorter, now much smaller than the 21 pages I began with). But I have not yet resolved what to do with all this material.

I have been wondering what the story really is with this project, and how I want to tell it. It occurs to me that perhaps I need to tamper with chronology a little bit, and re-sequence the order of its events. I have been thinking: perhaps I should tell of Maud Blessingbourne, her novel-reading and her shy romance first, even though I didn’t actually read the pages in which she appears until much later, until after I had made contact with Sam, and had chosen the Henry James story for the purposes of our project (more at less at random from a volume I have at home on my shelves: I wanted to read something by Henry James, and I liked the title). I have been wondering: it might be worth digressing briefly from a more straightforward report of our project and saying something about the beautifully named garden-path sentence. Perhaps that would be a way of introducing the body reading: a body that is only ever apparently at rest, engaged as it is in motion both willed and directed. It occurs to me that perhaps the story needs its two further protagonists, Kate and Sam, and their correspondence, and a sense of their individual enthusiasms and desires for any of this to make sense. Perhaps it needs the suggestion of a subplot: their new friendship borne out of a shared curiosity. Perhaps the story needs some scenes: scenes of reading, but also of looking and of wondering at scientific discovery. Perhaps it needs some objects: a novel wrapped in lemon-colored paper, let’s say. Or a white cup made so tiny, smooth and thin that it can be worn on a rapidly moving eye. Or a page of smoked scratchable paper, still pristinely black. I have been thinking, most recently, that perhaps the most appropriate form for this project is not a small publication, or series of small publications, as I had at one stage envisaged. Instead, perhaps it would be most interesting, and productive, simply to talk about it. To say: I did this. I wanted to do this, I willed it, I acted and activated this process of reading, recording, and writing (out of a desire to catch hold of reading, however briefly, in however contrived a manner, for the simple reason that I wanted to look at it, and to wonder at it for a while). But also to ask: isn’t this just what happens when we read? We undertake an action for the sake of its acting upon us, often in the hope that it will produce new and unexpected thoughts and feelings, images and ideas. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that I have not yet resolved what to do with this material because I am still reading it.


  1. Henry James, “The Story in It,” first published in a periodical in 1902 and then republished in The Better Sort in 1903. The Better Sort (Freeport, New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1970), 168-89. 

  2. James, “The Story in It,” 170. 

  3. James, “The Story in It,” 188. 

  4. James, “The Story in It,” 168. 

  5. Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read (London: Vintage, 2014) is a brilliantly suggestive recent account of this action, and especially of the relation between real-time reading and the story we tell ourselves about the experience after the fact, which is one of remembered seeing (11-15): “When we remember the experience of reading a book, we imagine a continuous unfolding of images [..] We imagine that the experience of reading is like that of watching a film. But this is not what actually happens – this is neither what reading is, not what reading is like.” 

  6. Nicholas Dames, The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science and the Form of Victorian Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Edmund Burke Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968), 28 

  7. Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, 26. 

  8. Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 21-2. 

  9. Dames, The Physiology of the Novel, 211-2. 

  10. Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, 6. 

  11. I have experimented with doing this. The other text I took along to my recording session with Sam was a four-page section of William James’s Psychology: Briefer Course (1962), specifically from the famous chapter titled “Stream of Consciousness” which deals with substantive and transitive states of mind (174-7). I published these pages, overlaid with the line of my reading path, as a chapbook titled On Reading as An Alternation between Flights and Perchings with No Press (Calgary) in 2013. 

  12. Dames, The Physiology of the Novel, 216. The translation of Javal’s summary of his discovery is Dames’s own. 

This report was originally delivered as a lecture at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam in February 2015, and (in a slightly revised version) at Saint Lucas College of Art and Design, hosted by Extra-City, Antwerp in April 2015.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.

Image: Kristen Mueller, "V: Inspiration," from Partially Removing the Remove of Literature, 2014.