“How many times have you daydreamed through several pages of a good book only to wake up to the realization that you have no idea of the ground you have gone over?”
I wish I could say I came up with that question myself, but the truth is that I read it someplace. Hmmm…where was that book? It was right here…then I put it on my nightstand…ah, yes, here we are: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren.
I’ve gotten into a bit of a rut with my reading. It’s been that way since the birth of my first child. I read quite a lot: blogs, social networks, news feeds, the occasional magazine. I’ll drop everything to zoom through a crime novel in the middle of the afternoon, but there are few “vegetables” on my plate, reading-wise. The only time I’m ambitious in my reading is when I smell the telltale fumes of infinite possibility that greet me upon entering the library. But having left with twenty books in my stroller basket, I’m fortunate to read half of one of them before the fines kick in.
Is that just the way it is at this stage in life – small children, constant interruptions, sleep deprivation and a general sense of having forgotten where I parked my brain? Or is there hope for me and all the other junk food readers out there? I solicited feedback in a recent blog post and received both commiseration and helpful suggestions.
One comment which stuck with me was from a friend whose reading habits I truly admire; she regularly posts reviews of books she’s read and seems to retain them well months after finishing the book.
“I let go of wanting to read like my 20-year-old self, and have accepted reading like my 36-year-old self. I cannot remember details like I used to once I am a few books removed. But I’m okay with that–I’m just reading for the love of reading, not to get a doctorate or anything. Well maybe to show off at parties, too–but there’s always breakdancing for that.”
First of all: so true – there is always, always break-dancing.
More to the point, she nailed the source of my frustration about my reading habits: it’s tied into a general sense of having left my carefree intellectual life behind now that I’m a homeschooling/crafty/occasionally housekeeping mom. Of course, there never was some ideal world in which I spent my days debating literary theory in a salon over coffee, but I did do a fair amount of Serious Important Reading at an earlier point in time.
So. The immediate solution to this problem, as in many other situations, was obvious: shopping. The problem was clearly not me, and my habits, but the fact that I hadn’t yet bought the book which would solve all my problems: How to Read a Book.
Have I finished How to Read a Book? Of course not! But I have gleaned some important points and come to think about the situation in a different light.
It seems my real frustration isn’t that I don’t know how to read a book – it’s that I don’t know how to learn a book. Even though I come from a humanities background, my collegiate reading consisted almost entirely of cramming books at the last minute and picking out important points to include in research papers. Forty-eight hours later, the books would largely be forgotten, and I’m not sure the “learning” stuck around much longer.
I realized I’ve been going about this the wrong way. Trying to make up for years of not reading what I guess we’ll call “literature,” I kept trying to attack books with the same speed and determination I always had. The goal was to get through as many Important Books as possible in the shortest amount of time; otherwise, how could I make up for the deficit I faced from years of not really reading?
But this is no way to learn a book.
For one thing, I can’t read a challenging book in one sitting – or even in one week. So what happens is that I try a book for a half-hour or so, leave it for a week, and am totally lost when I pick it up again. We can see how this would be frustrating.
The first thing I am going to accept is that I cannot learn a book in one quick read-through. I can keep flipping the pages until the end, but I won’t have really gained much from the experience. That’s okay, though, because Adler and Van Doren would call that “superficial reading,” and they would sign off on this approach: “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.”
Now, they wouldn’t say to content oneself with superficial reading, but rather to allow yourself to experience a book as a whole before going back to do a more thorough job of actually learning the book. This simple realization has made me feel much more at ease about my Quest to Be a Better Reader. It’s okay for me to not comprehend the entire thing the first time through – it doesn’t mean I’m no good at reading, it just means it’s my first time to encounter the text. Adler and Van Doren provide a structured approach to reading all sorts of literature, and it can’t be easily summarized in one blog post, but I highly recommend their book.
I will say that this experience of examining my reading habits and focusing on how to improve them has shown me something that probably applies to most aspects of my life: I need to slow down and appreciate things as they come. I don’t need to worry that I can’t tell you the names of every character in The Moviegoer a week after reading it; I do need to approach a challenging book with a toolbox of options for making sure I’m really learning the text.
I started out with a blog post focused more on “how do you find time to read?” than on “how should I go about reading?” and have already learned quite a bit from readers’ responses. How about you? What suggestions do you have for becoming a more careful reader, or what frustrations have you experienced?