The NY Times review of Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built (by James Shapiro, Feb. 2) is no longer online, but here’s a nice quote from it; it follows a description of Spufford’s learning to read by tackling The Hobbit as a six-year-old in bed with the mumps:

Spufford wonders in retrospect how he could have gotten the gist of Tolkien’s novel while unfamiliar with so many of the words. He finds an explanation in the research of Claude Shannon, a mathematician who worked for Bell Telephone and discovered that even if a third of its words were garbled, the message gets through: “There is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise.”


  1. I have that book, and I really liked his descriptions of childhood reading — although my own experience was closer to Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s in “Ruined By Reading.” I have to admit I liked his ruminations on porn a little less, but it was still interesting. I haven’t seen many books on how children learn to decode books and what it means to the bookish kids to grow up half here and half There, in the land of the Word, and it’s a very moving topic to me (guess why).

  2. I also read The Hobbit at age six [I found it horribly dark and unpleasant – the giant spider scene particularly nauseated me] but could already read fairly well by that age.

    Bizarrely, though, I thought I couldn’t read. At school we worked carefully through books with six or seven words a page [“Peter and Jane are in the garden.”] and I sincerely did not grasp that this was the same activity as when I read normally laid-out books by myself at home. I believe now that I felt the schoolwork was some kind of very important “reading theory” I couldn’t afford to neglect.

    The moment when my teachers and I realised that me reading Agatha Christie novels at home also counted as “reading” was a pretty puzzling realisation for all of us.

  3. Bizarrely enough although I was read to at home and loved it I had trouble reading at first, on my own, and actually HATED reading in kindergarten or whenever (bizarre, isn’t it!). I remember the feeling because it’s so alien. Then, all of a sudden, ba-ping — the words on the page magically came together and made sense. I still remember the readers: one was about a fox and one about a pig. I didn’t practice like the nuns wanted me to (I was sent to Montessori) (and that’s telling, isn’t it). Something similar happened to me with spelling, which I had also sucked at: I realized with “pumpkin” you could break it down into “pump” and “kin” and sound it out, and after that I was an excellent speller. It was odd. It was like synethesis….something in my head just came together.

    I also came across that big spider at a young age. Now I’m wondering if it is responsible for my arachnophobia. Actually, I was terrified by the Black Rabbit of Inle at six or seven. I think he is responsible for about three years of therapy all by his little supernatural self.

  4. This phenomemon is called redundancy, I believe. You can write a sentence sxbstxtxtxng xll thx vxwxls wxth xxs xnd yxx cxn stxll mxkx xt xxt prxttx mxch, bxt nxt cxmplxtxlxy. How much of language is redundant? That would be a fascinating area for language hat to explore.

  5. On the first day of first grade we all stood in a circle, and my peers each said they wanted to learn to read and/or write and/or do arithmetic. Came my turn – oh the embarrassment – I said “I dunno” because I already `knew’ all that.

  6. John Cowan says

    How much of language is redundant? That would be a fascinating area for language hat to explore.

    The answer has been fairly well known since the 1950s. English text has between 1 and 2 bits of Shannon entropy per character. Given a reasonable amount of input (say, 100 characters) a native speaker has about a 75% chance of predicting the next character correctly.

    Here’s an example from Shannon’s original paper, where a listener was asked to guess the next letter based on just 26 letters plus space. Lower case means the guess was correct; upper case means it was wrong and the correct letter was supplied by the experimenter: “the ROOm was NOT Very lIght a SMall OBLong REAding lamp On the Desk shed GLOw On PoLiShed wOod BUt LeSs On the SHabby REd Carpet”. (Note that lIght is lower case L followed by upper case I.) I’m not sure if a word was omitted from Shannon’s text before “glow”.

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