The Magic of Reading

The Magic of Reading is the title of a little-known but influential technical paper written by Bill Hill, an early innovator hired by Microsoft to develop ClearType typography, a readable text for the computer screen. Written in 1999, when internet developers were beginning to capture the confidence of the general population (and their credit cards), the paper, a genius exploration of the history of reading, characterized a decisive shift in the evolution of the written word, the moment when tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft began searching for a viable alternative to print.

Hill’s story is intriguing because it gives us an example of the kind of foresight and hindsight that results from the twin engines of need and innovation. Hill was a journalist, not a computer programmer, academic or historian, but he was admired by people as diverse as fellow journalists and coworkers, tech bloggers, corporate executives and naturalists. In his 2012 obituary in Forbes Magazine, he was referred to as, “one of the greats.”

I heard about Hill through Jon Young, a naturalist and “master tracker” whose book What the Robin Knows summarizes his research into the impact of nature on human intelligence. Young and Hill share a common interest, from widely disparate fields, in the cognition of patterns, and the two refer to each other fondly in their respective work.

Drawing on a century of research, Hill suggests that the ability to read stems from millions of years of pattern recognition hardwired into the human brain, like the colors and shapes of fruits and other foods, footpaths in a field or forest, and the tracks of animals in dirt. This is where Hill and Young overlap. Young, who has spent decades working with the Kalahari Bushmen and other indigenous tribes, describes what he calls a “master tracker” as someone not only able to follow a herd of antelope but capable of tracking specific individuals within it. His books and talks are full of examples that mystify the modern mind, and raise a healthy amount of skepticism. To a modern reader, his stories are almost unbelievable and that is largely his point.

To an illiterate person, the skill of reading is a sort of magic. Simply by looking at a handful of arranged symbols, one can instantaneously decode some of the most advanced knowledge ever acquired by human beings. So, says Jon Young, can we compare a human with no tracking skill to one who has it. To solidify his point, he explains the difference between a “tracker” and a “master tracker,” which might be likened to the difference between a fifth-grader and a college professor.

A tracker is someone with a developing knowledge of animal tracks, calls, patterns, etc. He sees the tracks and understands their meaning, though, like a fifth-grader, he may need to “look up” the answer from time to time. But a master tracker, says Young, no longer sees the tracks. He sees the animal. His skill is so advanced that the tracks and patterns recede to the background as he reads the landscape of meaning in real time. To the modern person this sounds unbelievable, and his stories are full of unbelievable acts, but, and this is where Hill chimes in – it is precisely what you are doing right now as you read this sentence.

In The Magic of Reading, Hill, drawing on Young’s work, describes the master tracker as a master reader, or, in his words a “ludic” reader, meaning, “someone who reads for pleasure,” which is apparently ludicrous.

“Ludic reading is an extreme case of reading, in which the process becomes so automatic that readers can immerse themselves in it for hours, often ignoring alternative activities such as eating or sleeping (and even working)… Even at the low (for ludic readers) reading speed of 240 words per minute (wpm), a one-hour reading session – which in the context of the book classifies as a short read – the reader will read some 14,400 words.”

Have you ever been lost in a book? If so, it may not be so hard to imagine a ludic reader of the landscape, a master tracker, getting lost in the story of the animal kingdom. But Hill goes on -

“For very short-duration reading tasks, such as reading individual emails, readers are prepared to put up with poor display of text. They have learned to live with it for short periods. But the longer the read, the more faults in display, layout and rendering begin to irritate and distract the reader’s attention to content. The consequence is that a task that should be automatic and unconscious begins to make demands on conscious cognitive processing. Reading becomes hard work.”

Seen that before?

“The massive growth in the use of the internet over the past few years has actually led to an increase in the number of documents being printed, although these documents are delivered in electronic form which could be read without the additional step of printing. Why? Because reading on screen is too much like hard work. People use the internet to find information – not to read it.”

In other words, as Jon Young quotes Hill, “a good font is one that disappears." And that is precisely how he describes the skill of a master tracker, who reads the story of an animal crossing the desert as effortlessly as we read the meaning of words across the page.

In one of his talks, Young describes a boy he once mentored who was having a hard time. The child was in sixth grade but was reading at a first grade level, and his parents were worried because he was becoming irritable at home and at school. Young took the boy outside and initiated him in the rudiments of tracking, meaning they spent many hours in silence and observation. But, and Young makes this point several times, never once did he provide any tutoring or help with language skills. Two years later, however, the boy was scoring in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension at his grade level and showed a marked improvement in his confidence and disposition.

Stories like this are anecdotal, but it helps sum up the comprehensive picture of reading that Hill fits into an evolutionary framework. If we want kids that read well, we might wish to remember that reading skills derive from millions of years of studying the earth. Only recently have we turned that skill into the orientation of text on paper, and now on screen. Regular and focused attention in nature might be one of the best ways to set the stage for a child's education, and keep it tuned.

Last spring, as school for the Earth Children, our outdoor kindergarten, was winding down, we were sitting in the middle of the labyrinth. It was morning circle and after singing a few songs and invoking the day we were discussing what would be our last journey to Bone Canyon, a small isolated canyon which often served as our classroom throughout the year. Suddenly, one of the kids shouted, “look!” and pointed to a small ant crawling over the gravel. This labyrinth being like most others, there was a small collection of crystals and colorful objects in the center, and, this ant being like most other ants, it had managed to pick up something absurdly large – a piece of fractured selenite. We all marveled.

“How can it…? Look how big it is!” said one child. We watched as the ant tripped and clambered over gravel and stone, the sheer weight of the crystal in its jaws frequently causing it to fall. But it didn’t let go. Occasionally, the crystal would drop on the far side of a rounded stone and the ant, dangling in the air, would pump its tiny legs furiously in the air. We giggled. But it always recaptured its footing, and it never gave up.

After watching for several minutes, another child asked, “where’s it going?” Two or three of us popped our heads up and glanced around. About ten yards away was a large nest, of the pyramid type common here in New Mexico. Hundreds of ants were coming and going with an assortment of moth wings, dried caterpillars, plant bits and several other dead ants. These pyramids, which are made from uniformly sized grains of colorful stone, are masterful works of art, and the community of insects in the foreground was reminiscent of images from Teotihuacan or Egypt.

“Why is it taking a crystal?” asked a third child. My thoughts exactly.

“Look, there’s another!” shouted a fourth. Sure enough, there was a second ant with a second rod of selenite. One ant might be an anomaly, a mistaken pheromone or two, but two ants…? What on earth were they doing with these crystals? And how many had they already secreted to their vault? Were they somehow useful? Tasty? Or just treasure? Whatever it was, it opened our eyes for a moment.

The earth is never as simple as it appears. Ants become apothecaries. Children become doctors. Text becomes meaning. As a culture, we have become fairly good at teaching children to read, but we have often relegated that instruction to walled classrooms. What we learn there, via text and video, is useful, but sort of two-dimensional – knowledge without experience, knowledge without sense. Smell. Touch. Listen. Run. If we rescue reading and education from the classroom and reintroduce them like wild species into our children’s lives on the earth – literally in the dirt – maybe we will raise children who are capable of reading the entire landscape of our century. Maybe we will raise children who are knowledgeable, capable, wise and happy.

ant carrying a tiny selenite crystal.jpg


You can find Bill Hill’s paper The Magic of Reading here -

Jon Young’s talk at Schumacher College -