How-to Read – Part 2 : It Isn’t Just Read Words, Turn Page, Repeat.

I remember watching Infomercials.

Knives that can cut through steel.  Dish towels that absorb moisture out of anything.  The SlapChop.  And of course, Billy Mays.

There was one infomercial I remember seeing that taught people how to speed read.  To Spreed.  They had a suited man, with a tight combover and glasses, explain how he was able to read an entire book in a fraction of the time of a normal person.  He had a method for being able to do this.  Secrets he probably unlocked by studying magic arts in the Himalayas.

And then he “proved” it.  He was handed a random book he had never read before.  Opening it quickly, the suited man rubbed his hands on each page, turned it, rubbed again, turned.  Rinse and repeat.  Then the host would ask the speed reader questions – to see what he recollected.  And apparently, it was everything.  And for just 4 payments of $19.99, you could have his secret method.

I don’t trust that a book masseur can rub a book and glean all of it’s contents.  I’m suspect of that suited man.  But it does raise a few questions.

Reading is Interrogation

There are different kinds of reading.  And, through a bit of research, there’s a book on those different kinds.  And as expected, the author’s name is Mortimer Adler.  And the book he wrote is called How to Read a Book, The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. I didn’t read it all, because it’s 200 pages.  But, in that tome of his, he talks about different kinds of reading.  The four he talks about are :

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Syntoptical

And we aren’t going to focus on any of these in this blog.  If you want to know more about them, read the book – or at least parts of it.  It’s not that those things aren’t important, they’re just not as important as what I’m going to write about.  At least to me.

The point of reading is interrogation.  Just with a bit of a spin.  Reading is unique in that a book also interrogates us, the reader.  If you let it.  Here’s the focus for this blog post :

  1. Reading for Understanding
  2. Reading for Engagement
  3. Reading and Reading Again

Reading for Understanding

I used to work as a camp counsellor.  Just after lunch each day, there was supposed to be an hour of downtime.  An hour, in our cabins, with the campers, to relax ( and nap if you needed ).  Which never happened.  The campers needed to be engaged – they had only one week away from home, so the excitement was abundant.  Normally, I’d try to trick them into “fun” things that kept them quiet.  Little competitions that kept them focused on winning, with my dessert as a prize ( the kitchen staff gave me double anyways ).

One tactic was to get the kids to draw.  To draw anything.  Who can draw the best dream room ? Who can draw the scariest monster ?  Who can draw the funniest situation ?

And they would draw and draw.  At the end of the hour, I’d have to judge.  And in those moments, I realized how tough it is to understand little kids’ drawings.  I don’t understand how parents do it.  A kid holds up a drawing they’re so proud of, and it looks like a carrot smoking a pipe, but they tell you it’s an airplane.  And to enjoy their picture, you have to understand them and what they’re trying to do.

Reading is like that.

When I started my masters, one thing I kept learning is that to understand a piece of literature, in any genre, we have to understand the Authorial Intent.  Which is a complex way of saying what is the author trying to say.

This is a huge thing for reading.  Reading is about listening.  The entire book is about something.  Take The Great Gatsby for example.  Sure, the book is about how Nick Carraway meets the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.  It’s about going to parties and falling in love with girls.  About an affair and revenge and all that wonderful life stuff that engages us and makes a book a classic.  That’s is what the book is about.  But what is the book saying ?

F. Scott Fitzgerald is trying to say certain things through the plot.  He’s talking about the decline of the American Dream.  He’s communicating that luxury isn’t all the hype it seems – those rich people still have unrequited love and still get cheated on.  And he is reminding us that Gatsby, the stereotypical hero, is a sort of false messiah.  He doesn’t save Nick, because he can’t even help himself.

That’s the point of reading.  The plot reveals intent.  Crazy eh ?  The reason these books are classics is because they communicate to us on a personal level.  Even if we don’t pick up on it all, the intent of the author still makes its way down deep.  We resonate with their feelings and situations.

It’s probably important to mention that you ( and I ) can’t change this meaning to suit our fancy.  You can’t call up F Scott ( mostly because he’s dead ) and tell him that his book is actually about the liberation of women.  You might want it to be that, but it isn’t.  And that’s okay.  Authors will write things and you will respond to them.  I don’t really agree with everything I read, but I want to understand the author as clearly as possible ( so I can disagree well ). This is what makes books so special.  The author has freedom to speak their whole thoughts on a subject.  We read and listen.  And after, we let it change us, or we don’t.

When you read, a goal is to understand the author.  Just like figuring out what those crumby drawings from your campers are.  Once you understand that, the book becomes brand new.

Reading for Engagement

Take that example of The Great Gatsby above.  It’s easy to pick the book up, read through its hundred and fifty odd pages and then put it down.  But reading is more than that.  This is the part where reading is interrogation.  Except it is the book’s turn to interrogate us.

Take those themes of the emptiness of the upper class and the ideas of false messiahs.  Those ideas can impact us – and they should.  That’s the goal anyways.

I remember going to one of my friend’s places as a kid.  He was loaded. Had it all.  A Super Nintendo in his room and Dunk-a-roos every day for snack.  That’s stacks on stacks when you’re nine.  And I also remember his parents fighting.  And him feeling lonely ( he was an only child ).  I wasn’t lucid enough to get this at nine, but I understand it now.  Money didn’t make your life perfect.

That idea should really confront us nowadays.  Take for example the opulent lives of the rich and famous.  Those perfect pictures, the best clothes, the coolest gear, always doing something amazing.  And we can get envious.  Envious of their private jets and $1,000 steaks.  Of their lavish parties and their beautiful arm candy.  But it’s a shell.  They’re still real people with break-ups, insecurities, and problems.

Fitzgerald reminds us of that.  And he doesn’t just want to remind you or present the idea to you.  He wants it to affect you and change you.  For you to see that you don’t need to live your life aspiring to some superficial idea of success.  Because if you do get there, you still need to deal with what we all deal with : life.

When you read, you need to be open an honest.  You need to let that book shake you up and interrogate you.  You’re allowed to – and you’re supposed to.  It is tough though, to be interrogated by a novel.  Because you have the choice to ignore or avoid the questions.  But, if you ask me, that’s not why we read.

This is one of the most important benefits reading brings about – growth.  I sort of picture this a bit like working out.  There are times when working out is great.  When you get in the zone and hit some new PRs and feel like a hero of old.  But there are times, when you’re tired and uninspired, when doing those hill runs sounds like torture.  When doing some heavy squats with good form feels like a punch in the nose.  But you grind it out – you let that hill dismantle your pride and you scramble up it anyways.  You get under the iron bar and fight to lift the burden.  And the result is growth and strength.

Letting a book impact and interrogate you is like that.  It’s being dismantled and lifting burdens.  But it’s like that, not for your body, but your person.  And you’ll grow.

This has happened to me recently.  Without stealing all the thunder of my next post, Steinbeck’s East of Eden dismantled me.  I was confronted with ideas of what it means to live and dream and die in new ways.  My current ways of thinking were shaken up.  And it was uncomfortable.  I read of the lives of his characters and saw them making choices I continually made – and as I read, I felt sorry for them.  I felt as if they had missed the point of being alive.  And then, as I’d bike home from work, I’d ask myself those same questions.  Have I missed the point ? Am I making choices that I don’t really like in my life ?

Reading and Reading Again

If you’ve made it this far, I might be able to convince you of one other thing : books aren’t a one time pleasure.  If the author has something to say and that “saying” is intended to affect you, it’s almost impossible to ingest it over one reading.

Without dropping in some spoilers, the second viewing of Inception was better than the first time.  Sure.  I knew the story and the plot.  I knew the twist.  But I picked up on new hints and foreshadowing.  I picked up on character traits and tricks that I missed the first time around.

That’s the same for a book.

CS Lewis said it like this :

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

Again, he says pretty much everything perfectly.  This quote reveals ( with more clarity ) what I’m trying to say in this section.  A book, an enjoyable book, can speak to you many times.  It can confront you and encourage you and inspire you many times over.  Like pizza.  A good book is like pizza.  Having one slice is never enough.

Wrapping It Up

This how-to for reading has been a bit tricky for me to write, but it seems really simple to summarize.

Who cares about how fast you read ?  The point of reading is to understand what the author is trying to communicate.  The point of reading is to take those communicated ideas and let them impact and engage you.  The point of reading is to grow when those things impact you.  And then to read more and read again.

In case you missed the first post in this little series, you can find it here.





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