How to Read: Thoughts for Fledgling Book Worms

10 Nov

Today, someone new to the act (art?) of reading books asked about how to become a reader, and whether he should start with the classics.  It’s an interesting question, I think.  And in my morning haze, I mentally smushed together this response, which I thought was worth sharing (as I’ve been woefully neglectful of this blog):

Reading is a spectrum of skill and intent that condenses and refines organically with time and experience.

On one end of this spectrum you have reading purely for pleasure, on the other, purpose.  The more you read, the shorter the spectrum becomes, until the two points are comfortably side-by-side. A well-practiced reader effortlessly and naturally combines the two.  I think it’s tempting for newish readers to reach immediately for the “heavy” classics, because they want to “be” that well-read person as quickly as possible. So they go for the books people talk about, the ones that sound so impressive when mentioned in conversation:

“So, what have you been reading?”

“Ah, I’ve been working on Swann’s Way by Proust, such an important work of literature, you know.”

Cue impressed raising of eyebrows. And, of course, it is inarguably an important work of literature, and I believe such things are important to experience.  But for a new reader, that’s like trying to learn piano by poring over Rachmaninoff’s concertos.  Much better to start at the beginning.  Reading well is a product of practice, and a new reader should begin by reading for pleasure first.  Find what it is you love, and lose yourself in some books that fit that attraction.  Don’t worry if they are “great” books, or even good ones.  The first step is training your reading “muscles”, and associating the practice with pure enjoyment.  Then you’ll naturally want to graduate to “heavier” books that catch your interest.  And you’ll be better equipped to approach them successfully.

Reading “critically” is another big facet of this, and we usually learn it in school (perhaps just enough to pass our classes).  But as a life-skill, it can really enrich any reading experience.  Often I hear readers become worried about what they might be “missing” from important works, as though understanding the “greats” is a privilege reserved for some esoteric literary realm somewhere far above them.  However, all it really takes to explore what we call “higher” art (in any medium) is curiosity.  It’s a damn shame, really, that much of civilization’s greatest achievements have been given this air of inaccessibility, when really, the very definition of great art includes universality – a relevance beyond time or place.

I’ll leave off with this quote by Nietzche regarding philology, which is a critical-reading approach that readers and scholars apply to historically-important texts.  I think it applies well to the art of reading deeply and with purpose:

“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all – to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow. It is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it slowly. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of work, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book. This art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.” *

* This quote shamelessly borrowed from a lecture by classicist Gregory Nagy

So, by way of a summary: step one is to dive into the art of reading with a glutton’s enthusiasm. Read widely and often. Then, when you get to a book that you feel has deeper layers worth exploring; slow down, savor, probe, research, wonder. You’ll be well-rewarded, and – as with most things – the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to do.

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