It seems like a very simple question: how to read a book?
1. Locate the book
2. Open the book
3. Find the first page
4. Move your eyes across the letters from left to right
5. Congratulations, you are now smarter, maybe…
In the past year I have read the following books on this very topic, which is not quite as simple as it sounds. I recommend reading all three of them if this topic interests you, as each book approaches reading in a slightly different way.
- How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler (excellent)
- How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom (exasperating)
- The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by S. Wise Bauer
The answer is that, as with so many things…it depends. What are you reading for? Is it for a class? Is it a science fiction novel? Is in non-fiction? Are you a literature professor and you’re reading yet another three page essay about the color green in The Great Gatsby?
Is it a horrific academic treatise on Dutch trade routes in the 1800s?
The books mentioned above focus on the various types of reading–inspectional, analytic, etc–and the goals of the reader. Different goals require different methods of reading. Or do they?
Are you interested in getting the most possible out of every book you read? How do you choose what to read? Is there such a thing as a book you should read?
All of those questions and more are almost answered in the books I’ve mentioned.
I’m not going to try to summarize what they all say beyond this: rereading and close reading are where the magic really happens.
Oh, and Harold Bloom feels that it is imperative that you memorize poems and recite them to yourself constantly. I’m not going to do that. What’s the opposite of imperative? That’s how I feel about memorizing poems and reciting them to myself.
How I read a book
It depends. When I am reading purely for story and pleasure–like when I read the Jack Reacher novels–I usually skip over descriptions and passages that don’t advance the story. (Meaning, I skip to the next fight, pretty much).
I’ve been reading some books of Tolkien criticism in preparation for Tolkien month here on the blog in September. To engage with the material I can’t really afford to skim over anything, or I lose the author’s argument.
I slow down. I take notes. I read with the Lord of The Rings right next to me so I can check things against the criticism. I am getting very excited for Tolkien month, by the way. I know, that probably makes one of us.
If I run into a line that I think is worth remembering I put it into a Google document that I created for quotes from books.
If I’m having a hard time understanding something, I slow down. I might reread a paragraph in a Derrida essay 20 times and get no closer to understanding it.
Sometimes I read a book twice in a row, like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. That book had so many clever, frustrating things going on that I couldn’t wait to go back through and take another look once some of the mysteries were cleared up.
It changes for me with every book, and every book changes for me as I grow older.
I reread a book of Woody Allen’s prose not too long ago and wondered why I had once thought it was so funny. I reread Self Reliance when I got my copy from the Domino Project and was amazed that I had ever thought any of it was boring.
Sometimes I am a serious reader. Sometimes not. Sometimes I want to know why David Deutsch thinks about the multiverse, and sometimes I want to read about a wizard trying to fight a shadow in the first Earthsea book.
My basic habits don’t change. Open the book, follow the letters, enjoy or discard.
But the way I react to the books changes, and that’s one of the reasons I can’t stop. I love to read. I love it more than anything. I refuse to do anything (or read anything) that makes the act of reading feel like a chore. Even reading that Derrida paragraph 20 times was fun, because I was reading it for a very specific reason.
What about you? Any reading rituals? Habits that you find interesting, or that are changing as you read more? As you age? Do any of you sickos go about reciting poetry to yourself constantly?
PS: I’ve heard very good things about How To Read Literature Like A Professor, but I haven’t read it.