Cover of The Gist of Reading by Andrew Elfenbein
The Gist of Reading
Andrew Elfenbein

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January 2018
272 pages.
from $24.95

Cloth ISBN: 9781503602564
Paper ISBN: 9781503603851

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What happens to books as they live in our long-term memory? Why do we find some books entertaining and others not? And how does literary influence work on writers in different ways? Grounded in the findings of empirical psychology, this book amends classic reader-response theory and attends to neglected aspects of reading that cannot be explained by traditional literary criticism.

Reading arises from a combination of two kinds of mental work: automatic and controlled processes. Automatic processes, such as the ability to see visual symbols as words, are the result of constant practice; controlled processes, such as predicting what might occur next in a story, arise from readers' conscious use of skills and background knowledge. When we read, automatic and controlled processes work together to create the "gist" of reading, the constant interplay between these two kinds of processes. Andrew Elfenbein not only explains how we read today, but also uses current knowledge about reading to consider readers of past centuries, arguing that understanding gist is central to interpreting the social, psychological, and political impact of literary works. The result is the first major revisionary account of reading practices in literary criticism since the 1970s.

About the author

Andrew Elfenbein is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.

"Deftly combining research from cognitive psychology with historical insight and careful literary criticism, Andrew Elfenbein convincingly argues that everyday reading practices are more complex than most literary scholars have imagined, and that literary reading is not particularly a special case of reading practices. The Gist of Reading promises to help set a new standard for integrative scholarship."

—G. Gabrielle Starr, President, Pomona College

"Andrew Elfenbein does not simply describe cognitive psychological findings, but, more dramatically, he considers new ways of interrogating these findings and of developing approaches to literary criticism. The Gist of Reading fills a niche, establishes new ideas and conclusions, and is itself a pleasure to read."

—David Rapp, Northwestern University