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  • The Gist of Reading by Andrew Elfenbein
  • Nancy Easterlin
Elfenbein, Andrew. 2018. The Gist of Reading Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. $24.95 sc. 256 pp.

What happens when you read a book? Although cognitive approaches to literature, including reader psychology, have grown considerably in recent decades, Andrew Elfenbein is the first to address this question in a full-length monograph, directed at literary scholars. In a series of well-organized, lucid chapters that bring in-depth knowledge of reading psychology to bear on nineteenth-century contexts, Elfenbein persuasively argues for the indispensability of this field in literary theory.

In the first several chapters, Elfenbein elaborates the relevant cognitive components of reading, providing distinctions along the way among "good-enough" (23), literary, and expert reading and building toward his core psychological concept of "gist representation" (103). Noting at the outset the sheer evolutionary improbability of reading's emergence, Elfenbein details, in chapter 1, Agnes Moors's model of "triple mode" processing, emphasizing both the importance of automatic functions in cognition and reading and their pitfalls. Whereas meaning activation for a word in good-enough reading typically results in "rapid inhibition of contextually inappropriate meanings" (25), literary reading, which engages features like alliteration and rhyme, interferes with inhibition, enabling a broader activation of material stored in memory, even associations presumably disqualified by context. [End Page 869]

Broadening this description of internal processes outward in chapter 2, Elfenbein elaborates the three prongs of reading—goals, coherence, and explanation—observing that they are all part of an ongoing, social interaction. Elfenbein's examples of readers include a fiction character (Austen's Knightley), Stanley Fish, and a student engaged in a read-aloud protocol, a diversity that illuminates ubiquitous, fundamental commonalities. Citing Walter Kintsch's influential work on reading comprehension, Elfenbein endorses Kintsch's view that the relevant processes entailed provide a "tool kit of general cognition," underscoring the alignment of aesthetic and everyday experience (59). Yet even though cognitive processes exhibit a high degree of regularity, particular events are shaped by goals. These features of literary reading—its consistency with general cognition and everyday experience and its susceptibility to goals—are, on the whole, ignored by traditional literary criticism and theory.

In chapter 3, Elfenbein elaborates online versus offline processes (i.e., reflective vs. automatic), then applies these to three Victorian commentaries on Robert Browning. Evidence suggests that expert readers such as literary scholars have developed specialized retrieval patterns that reduce the strain on working memory and that rely on metacognitive awareness. Arguing against the emphasis in reader psychology on expository recall, Elfenbein maintains that the situation model developed by the reader is dominated by an underlying notion of the author and attendant emotional tone, not by plot content. Here, Elfenbein details his core psychological concept, "gist representation," which emerges from a mental representation based on an encounter with the page and results in a situation model, or a gist, that includes, among other things, background knowledge, inferences, and emotional reactions.

In chapters 4–6, Elfenbein addresses three types of reading—hard, easy, and entertaining, discussing their emergence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture. Whereas the endorsement of effortful engagement emerged in seventeenth-century philosophers including Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke, the next era's Bible-reading guides, even those for children, developed a cognitive ethics of the process, which stressed understanding above rote memorization. In the Victorian period, combining these influences with that of the educator David Stow, John Ruskin asserted that literary reading was a mental discipline that led to a healthy society. Though Ruskin's views had a formative impact on American education from 1869 onward, the link between literature and behavior was later [End Page 870] disabled by the institution of standardized testing in the early twentieth century, which by its very nature prioritizes rote procedures.

Although denunciations of ease and its apparent enabler, that vulgar genre, the novel, attest to the enduring influence of Locke (all reading should require great mental effort), in the late nineteenth century neither was in danger of dying out. Effortful work was reserved for nonfiction, while the guilty, "easy" pleasures of fiction were commonly indulged. Employing a quantitative methodology to...


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