Hygiene in Reading

Patrick Williams

Hygiene in Reading is a series of poems sourced only from words appearing in the single chapters of Edmund Burke Huey's 1908 volume The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading; With a Review of the History of Reading and Writing and of Methods, Texts, and Hygiene in Reading. That book is a work distantly foundational to my own research, but one that I had never read (or, honestly, even heard of) until recently. I undertook this project as an investigation into the language of talking about reading, writing, and the technologies that enable and undermine them; a rewind to the early days of my field. As I was writing the pieces, I was struck by the vibrancy of language and the scenes and players available to me in what is essentially a textbook. The book itself is something of a collage of educational research, reading & printing history, late-19th/early-20th Century research methods, and opinions documenting the various vigors, curiosities, and obsolescences in approaches to meaning-making throughout the ages. In the end, I found myself charmed by Dr. Huey and his peers and well equipped by their words to reflect on some of my own questions and anxieties about writing and reading.

Disjecta Membra

In what data does meaning exist? Raw sounds? The muscular adjustments of escaped horses? Little words pasted consecutively end to end? Out of a large number of replies, the most frequent was “how a spider spins its web.” After a spider makes a web, a dim suggestion of that particular spider is formed in our common psychic fringe. Many view the spider-situation with displeasure. The whole spider-scene, in fact. But, it is solely in this kaleidoscopic fringe that we actually dwell together. The spider jumping is visualized, by all of us, as a spider ready to jump or one just alighted. Still images are the machinery of meaning. The role active images and rapid, violent transitions play in our understanding has been overstated. For example, I have the still image of two puzzled children in mind when I hear a tolling bell. It is like a familiar line of poetry. It is entertaining, really. Detached data throw us toward those magic cases of remembering only what movement is like, how it feels to play, but not what its deeper significance is.

Each City and Region For Itself

The ideal station in life for the child is obvious: soldier. Let children linger for a period occupied mainly by their ugly instincts. An acquaintanceship with outdoor nature through free play or manual work is suited to this early age. As is leaving a little time every day for familiarizing the child with the perversity of school fences. Adults should place typewritten or mimeographed forms around the room; but carefully, only the best system of propaganda forestalls prejudices. With time, the right form comes to mind, but if the wrong form is often enough seen it will also come. Our only real progress is seen in battle. By age ten, Margaret could dictate the entire series of phrases from “You must wait until you are a man" to “fall in, fall in.” Patrick was conspicuously lacking in the desirable mental hacks, and was, at the best, a prig. At recess, he would get his sword and harm himself. The teachers got very cross, and they had the guns, so their side always won.

The Thought Reader

None of us need hear more than half or two thirds of what sister babbles to recall the anxious order of our home. Laura had two pencils and an attack of the measles. She knew vividly that the outlook was far from encouraging. But the over-bookish girl would practice improvising unnatural geography on the old atlas, filling whole pages of charts with more useful ones. She was busy scribbling out the child-soul all day long. Now it delights her to find her secret name printed in the dictionaries, directories, catalogues, and dozens of periodicals the family read. Every secret language is spoken or printed among common forms of written expression; that way one may recombine tons of trash into directions for some spontaneous performance. She prefers being possessed to being free. This fable teaches that if we [words omitted] others, they will supply us with a life of endless terror. It may safely be said that this story puzzles librarians, but it could lay the foundations of correct taste and the right ideals for modern life and conduct.

The Extreme Thrill of Simplicity

Human language is an unnatural contrivance used daily by tens of millions of people. The language of conservative men and the language of hollow parody have been growing rapidly alike. In the memory of many men now living, inventive boys were flogged at school for rationalizing even the slightest improvement in literature. The neglected shape of our daily newspapers is a trite example of their crude genius. Studies showed getting more data only clouded the subject. Even an electric locomotive does but a small part of its work at maximal speed, much like our modern writers. But it is the crabbed handwriting of stenographers controlling the dissemination of most of our information. Sooner or later, problems of energy or comfort will compel practical, busy people give up reading entirely. It is a tremendous waste of time. The practice of reading should soon disappear.


Twenty post-graduate students turn up the gas quickly to see how the darkness looks. It was the one thing they could not escape doing if they tried. They found that the most complex part of silent reading was the reader’s habitual mode of imagining. Reading from an interesting novel while whistling brought awareness to the protoplasm of psycho-physical life. In a slurring of words, they all say it to themselves: “the others grow darker.” Poetry functions as a shadow copy of the speech of everyday life. The articulatory apparatus is more deeply set in those who barely motorize. Eminent philologists corroborate that the word continuum represents the absence of a particular snow-flake crystal in the hand. Subnotion: The graphophone and kinetiscope are not separated “up in the head.” They are mutually present in indissoluble union: noticeable in the verbal kernel or nucleus, in the overtone halo or fringe, in echo and mere noise. Likewise, a word is a continuous series of an infinite number of sounds. The listener remains at rest, but I can never escape.

Patrick Williams is a poet and academic librarian living in Central New York. His recent work appears in publications including Heavy Feather Review, 3:AM Magazine, The Collapsar, Hot Metal Bridge, and Sundog Lit. He received his MS & PhD in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin; his research focuses creative writers' online reading and writing practices, social interaction, and what we can learn from the systems that support them. He is the editor of Really System, a journal of poetry and extensible poetics.