Can We Be Better Readers?
If I were of a different mind-set, I might have titled this essay ‘3 Ways To Be A Better Reader’. That, however, would distinctly change the tone of this piece and require it to be something of a list of injunctions – the Three Commandments – set down by someone arrogant enough to presume to set rules for anyone. And had I written that list, its first item would have to have been:
“Avoid ‘listicles’ and other pabulum whose own writers cynically label ‘content’.”
The reason this hypothetical me would suggest such a thing is that this kind of writing is antithetical to what I advocate for. Buzzfeed-style articles are bedfellows with superficiality because their cosmetic treatment of subjects, designed for skimming, actively seduces the mind towards inertia. What I believe in and will champion here is slow, thoughtful, deep reading. This kind of reading is to listicles what a profound, long-term relationship is to meeting every person at a party in five minutes.
With that caveat out of the way, I can get on with the task of discussing some of the things that I have found conducive to reading in a way that changes me, in a way that invites books into my mind and heart, to have a lasting impact beyond the mere passing of a few enjoyable hours.
“Expect something big, something exalting or deepening from a book. No book is worth reading that isn't worth re-reading.”
~ Susan Sontag
In Truth and Lies in Literature, Stephen Vizinczey writes that musical training taught him the importance of the constant “study of masterworks”, which he suggests as a prerequisite for learning to read well. Deep reading, the close analysis and careful reflection on a piece of literature, is a skill that can be learned and nurtured. If you listen to great writers speaking, aside from their ability to produce dazzling sentences while the rest of us flounder with, “like, and then he was like, um ...” you will notice the way they fluently quote from great works and reference the classics. And these thinkers are able to do this because of their intimate acquaintance with favourite literary works.
This is more than simply a way of impressing others with eloquent erudition (though it undoubtedly does that too, and there is nothing wrong with a little vanity). These allusions often underline or illustrate a point the speaker is making, while invoking the constant conversation literature hosts across epochs and cultures. This skill also carries over into their writing, adding richness and depth by engaging with the greater whole of which their book is a miniscule part. But what good is this profundity in novels if readers cannot discern it? You, the reader, are just as important a part in this cultural ecosystem. And readers can only fulfil that potential and receive as much as possible of the emotional and intellectual sustenance books provide by being astute readers.
Re-reading is an important facet of your education in deep reading. The first encounter with any novel requires a certain willingness to be drawn in, aided by temporary suspension of a certain level of critical analysis. My first readings are always an instinctive experience, an exploration of new terrain with blind eyes, outstretched hands, and an open heart. But this kind of reading is not enough to truly say I understand or fully appreciate a book. And there is a particular pleasure in the union of an emotional response with the intellect. First you learn what, then you learn why. As C. S. Lewis, an exceedingly mediocre writer but full of quotable advice, explained, “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”
Vizinczey reminds us that being widely read is not the same as being well read: Reading many books will yield very different results from reading a few books many times. Mortimer J. Adler put it as: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but how many can get through you.” Books are like people we meet; we can like those people who cross our paths once, but the ones we love are those whom we spend meaningful time with. If you really love books, return to them again.
“The marked book is usually the thought-through book.”
~ Mortimer J. Adler
The phrase “reading between the lines” is an interesting kind of irony, in that it has become a cliché and, as happens with received wisdom, lost much of its ability to prompt the person hearing it to actually follow its own injunction. So the phrase “reading between the lines” becomes something most of us don’t think about too deeply, we don’t read between its lines. What might encourage us more to do so than writing between the lines? In this context, the act of writing in books becomes an instant act of revitalising that tired phrase, by moving it out of the realm of passive maxim and into that of a physical act.
Much ink has been spilled in the endless conflict between the pious and iconoclasts on the subject of defacing books. One side views the physical book as a sacred object, the other insists on reclaiming that power for the reader. The question is rarely asked about what good there is in taking notes regardless of where those notes are written. There is much to be said in favour of writing out favourite lines, remarkable ideas, and opinions formed while reading a book, and these qualities are not affected by whether they are scribbled on the page of the hallowed text or down the wall beside which you sit as you pore through your book.
I have a particular notebook in which such notes are written. It was a notebook I used first for stories and essays, then for scribbling thoughts on a lecture I attended, and then many pages were filled with conjugated verbs in Spanish. So it is not a special notebook designed or purchased solely for the task to which it now attends. There is no need to be precious about these things. Whatever you write in should be functional enough that you can write fluently, and not so remarkable that you don’t want to make mistakes in it and end up writing nothing at all.
But, first, what would you write in such a book? And second, why should you write those things down at all? To the first question I can briefly categorise the things I write down as:
Sentences of beauty or profundity, or those I struggle with.
Clever literary techniques or displays of artistic ingenuity.
Ideas the book inspires.
Thoughts on each chapter and the book as a whole.
As to the question of why we should make such notes, there are several, more involved answers.
First, it slows down your reading. It causes you to take twice as long to finish a chapter, and unhurried reading is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for thoughtful reading. There is a good case for not taking notes on your first pass at a novel – part of the pleasure in that initial reading is the total absorption in the story, the unconscious conviction that these are real people and events you are reading about. Again, this is why re-reading is so important to a full engagement with a book; it offers you a chance for both kinds of reading, immersive and analytical.
Second, taking notes keeps you alert, awake in an active sense, subverting the very conditions sought for a first reading by removing you from a passive intake of experience and turning your attention to the nature of the experience. You read a beautiful sentence or a line over which you stumble, and you write it down. For the well-formed statement, writing it down provides you with the time and a space in which to examine why you find it so pleasing. It also helps commit it to memory, assimilating it into your vocabulary, repertoire, and character. For the ugly or strained sentence, that same time and space offers opportunity to untangle it, and I often find that the act of writing it out allows me to see it from a different angle and reveal what was hidden a moment before.
Third, note taking involves not only replicating the author’s words but writing out your own, expressing your ideas in words on a page. Deep, active reading requires and produces thinking. As I discussed in last month’s essay, thoughts require language, and by expressing your ideas in words you promote thinking and develop depth to your thoughts. A 2010 meta-study found strong evidence for a correlation between reading and writing, concluding that “writing about a text proved to be better than just reading it, reading and rereading it, reading and studying it, reading and discussing it, and receiving reading instruction”. As far as they were concerned, “the evidence is clear: writing can be a vehicle for improving reading”.
Finally, there is a benefit derived from the notes rather than from the act of making them, and it ties in nicely with my first item: Your notes can be re-read, much later when you cannot recall the line that so affected you, or you want to explain your opinion of a book, or you recognise an influence in what you are presently reading, or you want to wander the hallway of memory along which notes in your writing are hung to remind you of the reader you once were.
“There are few finer pleasures than talking books to one who knows. There may be joy in heaven – I am told there is – but the evidence is not conclusive, and I'll take mine here in my library.”
~ A. Edward Newton
The final element I apply to deep reading does not actually involve reading. Instead, it involves discussing the book with others after having read it, to which some of what I said above about taking notes applies. Having to find the words with which to express your ideas about the book for someone else’s understanding focuses your thinking and brings clarity to your opinion. It has even been the case for me that I have had ambiguous feelings about a book or have struggled with conflicting notions, and in airing my thoughts to someone else, I came to understand my own mind.
This obviously doesn’t necessitate the other person having read the book – they can act as a sounding board, and even broad, generic questions from them can refine your interpretation – but I will risk sounding saccharine to say that, just as a book is not fully appreciated without deep reading, being a reader is not fully satisfying unless you can share the joy of it with fellow readers. Books are an antidote to the loneliness of life and as close as we come to a refutation of solipsism. When that thrill of recognition comes at reading a description of your own mind and heart in the words of someone else, it finds its origin in our deep-rooted need for empathy, and this is not an infinite resource. Literature is not a perpetual motion machine of emotion. Our recognition of ourselves in books is augmented and fed by recognising books in our lives. We renew our love of literature and replenish our relationships through the act of sharing literature. So talk about the books you love.
You may have noticed, if you have been reading closely, that each of my three items here are essentially different manifestations of the same concept: engaging with a text through various forms of dialogue. Re-visiting a conversation with a book to hear what you missed the first time; a conversation with yourself through notetaking; conversations with other people, other minds.
These are ideas that also hold value for deeply appreciating other art forms: Re-watch favourite movies, look again at that painting, listen once more (twice more, thrice more) to that song. Make notes as you watch, look, and listen. Discuss your opinions with others who hold strong opinions and articulate them well. Subject your thinking to the open forum of intelligent conversation. Becoming a better reader increases your appreciation and enjoyment of books, which means that in changing yourself, you change the books you read too.
• Susan Sontag, Vassar Commencement Speech (2003)
• Stephen Vizinczey, Truth and Lies in Literature (1986)
• C. S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays On Literature (1981)
• Mortimer J. Adler, How to Mark a Book [online]
• A. Edward Newton, This Book Collecting Game (1926)