How Do You Read?

I was listening to an interview with Stanley Fish that was recorded not long after he published How To Write a Sentence. Fish’s contention in this work is that too much emphasis is being placed on the subject of students’ writing rather the the form. The results of this are the many almost unintelligible papers he reads which are being writing by his graduate students who in turn are teaching the basic undergraduate writing courses. Fish actually recommends writing that has no rhetorical objective but which is carefully crafted to meet the rules and needs of grammar, syntax, etc. Try it … it’s not easy.

I can see his point and liken it to doing scales over and over when learning to play the piano:  breaking out into a tune doesn’t develop the discipline required to play the piano well, even though it sounds good and mommy pats you on the head.

But Fish said something else that has made me think and I am continuing to mull it over. He suggested that there are two things you need to learn to become a good reader:  first, you had to learn to read slowly and methodically, and second, you had to learn to like reading that way.

I tend to read fast but when I am studying a text, I read very slowly and make notes along the way. Reading too fast is not productive; I cringe when I hear that someone has skimmed through the slow parts to get to the good stuff . Skimming is not reading. On the other hand, I have found that many books are more valuable to heat a room than to read. Perhaps all home libraries should include a working fireplace since even skimming is wasting too much time on many books.

This brings up the specter of books-on-tape or CD or iPod. These spoken books have value if the reader is blind but in that case it’s the best that can be expected. A fully sighted person that relies on recorded books is not reading:  you can see this if you consider that most avid users of recorded books admit that they are only relying on the recording when they are doing mindless tasks, typically driving. This simply means that a mindless state is allowing a recorded book to filter through it. Reading is not mindless.

I have developed some eye problems that are making it very difficult for me to read. I intend to follow Stanley Fish’s advice and read slowly, wiping the tears from my eyes at the end of each sentence and using a magnifying glass if need be. Hopefully when we get out of the prime allergy season I will regain some reading speed but perhaps by then I will have found that I like reading slowly.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Read?

  1. I suspect that if you read fiction chiefly for plot you can read fast and missing sections that you skim through are often not important to the over-all story. Unfortunately I find that many people who read this way are more concerned with having read the text rather than the actual process of reading the text.

    When I was in school (BC – Before Computers) I suppose I read the text books methodically, underlined, took notes, scribbled in the margins (they hadn’t invented Hi-Liters yet but the new pens with felt tips and rollerballs … I still use a fountain pen). Now I actually think I read non-fiction much faster than fiction. My excuse is that I just want to get to the point of the non-fiction but I want to carefully watch how the fiction author constructs his novel (and I hate to miss an allusion or reference).

    And of course there are entirely different methods for reading poetry.

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  2. I find my reading speed varies based on what I am reading, as well as my familiarity with the topic. I naturally read fast, and with great works of fiction, especially the well-written/well-translated ones I can read especially fast: the commentary and story of Victor Hugo I can read especially quickly, except for some parts of Les Misrables (and I refer to the English translations). Dickens can often be read quickly, but sometimes scenes and commentary in his book require reading slowly or rereading.
    My specialty, though, which is politics, often does require reading slowly. It’s all a commentary on reality and morality, and even the more interesting and most clearly written works require time. And, of course, as you mention, there is the often requisite note-taking, which can either be literal or mental, but in both cases requires slower reading and more thinking than many modern fifth-grade reading-level works of fiction.

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