Fine Print: Learning How to Read Well
"We read to keep ourselves fully alive and alert to the world."
When I graduated from college, I was completely burnt out on books. Exhausted from four years of plumbing the depths, I felt as if someone had wrung the juice out of my brain for good.
But one day, riding the subway to work, I read two profiles in The New Yorker: one of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and the other of haute couture designer Valentino. Two more different influential individuals could hardly be found; yet, they had one important characteristic in common: both are voracious and widely-ranging readers. Valentino apparently lives in a house stacked high with books, while Clinton can converse on practically any topic as a result of his book obsession.
Convinced, I picked up a book again (The Hours, by Michael Cunningham), then another, and before long, I was hooked. Since then, I've become an intentional reader, the kind of slightly obsessive bibliophile who makes lists of books to read, and always travels with two books, just in case I finish one before the day is over.
Developing a reading practice has served me well. First, and most obviously, intentional reading expands my mind, acquainting me with ideas that I'd never otherwise encounter. It also makes me a much better conversationalist, and has the side benefit of letting me instantly identify people with whom I will likely "click" based on the books they like. As I absorb the sentences penned by experienced writers, I learn how to become a better writer, too. And reading, of course, provides me with an enormous amount of pleasure and relaxation. To quote Thomas Jefferson, these days, "I cannot live without books."
As a student, recent graduate, or seasoned professional, you know all this; yet, chances are, you are unsatisfied with your reading habits. Television and video games, or chores and homework, or life and family get in the way.
What can you do to establish a reading practice? How do the well-read—who are often also the busiest people among us—maintain their own reading?
The well-read have a variety of ways in which they choose the books they read. Predominant among these are recommendations from friends and acquaintances whose literary taste they respect, though not always immediately; "I rarely pick up a new book people rave about. If they are still talking about it five years later, I tend to become interested," says Dana Gioia, former chair of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.
Dan Siedell, author and art history professor and curator at University of Nebraska–Omaha, says that he has a handful of publishers that he especially likes. "I'll scour their websites and see their new and forthcoming titles." Others, like Gioia and Susan Olasky, book critic for WORLD, sometimes follow authors rather than seek out individual titles, reading the entire canon of an interesting author.
Many people mention being careful to stay current in their fields of inquiry and interest. Susan VanZanten, professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, says that she reads on Christian higher education and scholarship, nineteenth-century literature, pedagogy and African literature. Gioia reads "mostly for pleasure and secondarily for information." Ray Pennings, Senior Fellow and Director of Research at Cardus (the publisher of Comment), purposefully structures his reading around staying current in his areas of expertise (including faith and culture, Canadian political life, and industrial relations), acquainting himself with a wide range of topics and reading periodicals.
Many cite specific periodicals to which they subscribe and whose recommendations they follow: the most prevalent seem to be the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Image Journal, Books & Culture, various regional newspapers— and Comment, of course.
Internet-based reading figures largely into people's book recommendations as well. Denise Frame Harlan, writer and instructor at Gordon College, and Andi Ashworth, author and co-director of Art House America, both cite the "Booknotes" blog written by Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds bookstore as an excellent source of ideas for books. Olasky also reads several literary blogs, as well as those on subjects that interest her, such as politics, design, Do-It-Yourself culture and writing. James K.A. Smith, author and professor of philosophy at Calvin College, raves about the "Table of Contents Alert" services offered by most scholarly journals, which sends the Table of Contents for new issues to your email inbox.
Several note the need to read classics they missed first time around. "I make book lists based on the long-established gaps in my own knowledge that I would dearly like to fill," says Deborah Bowen, author, professor and chair of English at Redeemer University College. David Naugle, author, professor and chair of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, mixes it up, burying his nose in a classic and then turning around and reading something hot off the press. Sam Andreades, pastor of The Village Church in New York City, reads bits of Moby-Dick to his children on vacation—"by the time we finish, they'll be in their thirties"— and recommends Invitation to the Classics (Louise Cowan and Os Guiness) and Genius (Harold Bloom) as valuable resources for those wishing to fill in the gaps. Olasky exhorts the new reader of classics to start with the more accessible ones, such as Jane Austen, and consider forming a book club to provide support when reading more serious or intimidating books.
But even the most intentional readers have their guilty pleasures. Gioia "devours" collections of science fiction short stories before bed; VanZanten is partial to murder mysteries; Olasky has always enjoyed mystery novels. Frame Harlan relaxes with magazines on knitting and spinning. (I relax with cookbooks.)
These methods of choosing books work. Some of the people I corresponded with—authors, heads of organizations, college professors, journalists— read as many as 200 books per year (because of her work as a book critic, Olasky can read up to 400); many more read between twenty and fifty each year. Gioia reads two or three books each week, and generally has one novel and one nonfiction book going at a time.
Most readers admit to writing in their books—some begrudgingly ("I hate discovering library or secondhand books with highlighter in them, or fierce little notes in the margin, which tell me only what someone else thought," says Bowen). Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, writes especially in the books she loves. Ashworth marks "achingly beautiful, profound or memorable" passages, and writes down a quote in her journal if she especially wishes to remember it.
Writer, speaker and co-founder of Ransom Fellowship Margie Haack is an avid marker of books who recounts lovingly a gift of a book of John McPhee essays, found by the giver in a used bookstore and obviously well-loved; now, in addition to the original reader's markings and an inscription from the giver, the book bears her own highlightings and rankings. "I'd like to think that one day a grandchild might pick up her grandmother's book and be surprised to learn we are bound together by more than blood and genes," she says. "Go ahead; mark it up. Reveal your imperfect passions and pathetic comments. It's okay."
For complicated works, or books he is using for a project or reviewing, Pennings has developed a useful system. "I take an 8 ½ x 11 page folded in half, and after each chapter, I write a short summary of the thesis of the chapter with a couple of key quote references which I might utilize in future work."
Smith uses the blank back page of the book as a personalized index, on which he highlights themes and records the page numbers on which those themes appear so that he can return to them, draw connections, and make notes. "This makes it easier for me to come back to a book later and dive into it when I'm writing," he says. Similarly, Pennings writes key references into a notebook for future follow-up or articles.
Keeping track of the books one reads is useful for future reference, especially for those who read many books. But people vary on how they do so. Some, like Gioia, manage to keep a running list in their mind. Both Smith and Siedell list their reading in a Moleskine notebook; others keep lists on their blogs. Some—including me—use GoodReads to list books and share recommendations with other friends.
Finding the Time
Even those who are convinced of the importance of reading in their life may have difficulty actually developing the practice of reading. One important way to begin is to set aside time to read each day. Most readers seem to spend at least a little time reading before bed. Some spend an hour or more each day reading the newspaper and blogs. VanZanten has no specific time in the day to read, but "every few weeks, when I need a break from life, I take an entire day and spend it reading."
Reading doesn't just happen—the temptations and distractions are great. Those with erratic schedules carve out time for reading whenever possible; Andreades says, "One of my favorite things is lying on the sofa when the sun is coming in directly into the living room (usually for an hour in the morning), sunbathing and reading an old book after I've exercised."
Ashworth confesses to reading "any time I see an opening or can make an opening"—from solitary mealtimes to errand running. She carries several categories of books which she reads according to mood or time of day.
Travel is an ideal time to read, especially for the very busy. Pennings says that he has much more time to read when he's on the road, in planes and hotel rooms. Gioia, who spends much time on or waiting for airplanes, trains and subways, always has four or five books in his briefcase, and listens to audiobooks when he drives.
Even those whose occupations do not depend on reading can set aside a small amount of time— whether it is before bed, in the morning, with an audiobook while cooking dinner, while traveling, or in place of other entertainment such as television—to begin reading. Be sure to start small (a half hour is better than nothing), but be prepared to lose track of the clock!
A Discipline Worth Developing
The people I spoke with encourage college students to develop the reading habit early, even when most of their reading is chosen for them. Harder encourages students to view books as presenting ideas to be understood, rather than texts to plow through and regurgitate. Warning against the tendency to see assigned books as simply items to cross off the to-do list, she encourages students to approach their individual assignments "with the big picture in mind—what is being argued, and why? Imagine the list of authors and their works as all being present for a dinner party—what would each say on the subject at hand, and why? Some will violently disagree with each other—why?" This sort of reading, Harder exhorts, can help students not only understand what they are reading, but also why they are reading.
Pennings urges the development of a conscious rotation of various disciplines, genres and authors. Naugle follows the advice of C.S. Lewis and mixes old and new books, and tells students that nearly any poorly-taught course can be redeemed through careful reading. Frame Harlan encourages seeking out "writing you find irresistible." Ashworth comments, "Reading is a huge blessing; while people all over the world tell and listen to oral stories and poems, only a relative few are privileged to be literate, have easy access to books, and the leisure time to pursue them. We can expand our experience of God's world and people through reading, finding more in which to delight and rejoice."
Gioia exhorts the recent graduate as well as the seasoned professional to view their reading time as a productive investment, not simply a way to pass time. "We read to keep ourselves fully alive and alert to the world. In our current electronic entertainment culture, it is too easy to be lulled into an almost narcotic type of passivity. Reading another person's words usually has the odd effect of making us reconsider our own feelings and ideas. Surely some people can keep themselves alive and alert to their own existence without books, but for most people it is essential to nourishing their inner lives."
Reading can transcend simply being a mental practice. Even when one is reading a book that does not have a clear connection to theology or Christian discipleship, the exercise of the mind and expansion of the reader's humanity is part of making them an obedient follower of Christ. As Siedell puts it, "Reading is a spiritual practice which fills a person up with humanity and experience that merely living a practical life cannot and does not accomplish."
Denise Frame Harlan
James K.A. Smith