"WHAT THE EYE SEES IN READING."
IN your admirable cautionary note on "The Eyesight of Readers," in the September number of your magazine, you say, "A book of five hundred pages, forty lines to the page and fifty letters to the line, contains a million of letters, all of which the eye has to take in, identify, and combine each with its neighbor."
I believe you are wrong. I don't believe we deal with letters in reading at all, except when we meet unfamiliar words. I think persons, who read rapidly recognize words and phrases without analyzing them into their elements. I think that every word has a countenance, a physiognomy, which we soon learn, and which we afterward recognize as we do the faces of our friends.
Repeatedly I have amused myself by approaching an unfamiliar sign, or handbill, or printed page. What comes first into view? Not letters, but words; and they stand identified when no single letter can be distinguished.
It lies within easy observation that the lateral oscillation of the eyes of a rapid reader is very limited. Why? He cares so little about spelling the words he reads, that he does not even present to all of them the more sensitive spots on his retinæ, but is content to leave the images of most words upon more peripheral parts where they could not be spelled.
I would not presume to inform you of the brilliant success of the experiment of teaching children to read without spelling—an experiment which I believe has been most thoroughly tried in St. Louis. In the case of children so taught, words only are scanned, the young readers being wholly ignorant of the value of letters.
I have a correspondent whose written characters could not possibly be recognized, and yet to me his letters are fairly legible. Why? Because, however far he departs from the standard of the copy-book, he always writes any given word in the same way; and, although I could not spell isolated words from his written page, I have learned to recognize them as quickly as if they were fairly printed.
I think it might be successfully maintained that there actually is not time for each letter to be separately regarded, either by the eye or the mind, in rapid reading. I read the first three pages of the "Sketch of Joseph Leidy" in three minutes, and Abercrombie could have read it much quick, er. In each minute I read four hundred words, containing more than two thousand letters. I submit that, while it is possible to see six or seven words per second, it is quite impossible to see thirty or forty letters per second.
Hamilton, Ohio, September 10, 1880.
A CASE OF PROTECTIVE MIMICRY.
I venture to send you an account of a sparrow's performance which I witnessed some time ago, and which you may consider worth publishing. It seems to me that the publication of such observations, when known to come from a trustworthy source and bearing the stamp of probable correct interpretation, is sure to add a light and pleasant page to our journals of popular science, as well as furnish a store from which illustrations may be drawn by those needing them. You have no reason to know me or my trustworthiness, but, that I do not depend upon imaginary data for such narratives as I send, I think I may refer you to my friend and teacher. Professor W. K. Brooks, of the Johns Hopkins University, or to Professor Martin, of the same institution, although I do so this time without their know ledge or permission.
Some time since, while riding slowly along a dusty macadamized road, I was startled by the hurried flight close by my side of a small bird which dropped in the road a few paces ahead, and after a flutter in the dust sat perfectly motionless. I drew up my horse to watch events, when a moment later a hawk swooped by, but missed its prey, and went off into an adjoining field. The sparrow remained still in its place, and, all covered with dust, looked for all the world like one of the many loose stones in the road—so much so, that no wonder it should have escaped the sharp sight even of the hawk.
But one explanation of such a freak seemed possible; and when we reflect that these birds generally take to the bushes or to the lichen-spotted rail fences, when pursued by hawks, and that dust is not a constant factor of the environment, we stop to admire so bright a spark of intelligence kindled under such trying circumstances. Respectfully,
Bolling W. Barton, M.D.
Baltimore, September 80, 1880.