I’ve been thinking about how we read, why we read, and whether it can be done well.
For example, check out my review of Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well over at Mere Orthodoxy.
In addition to Prior’s book, I’ve also been reading two other books about reading.
The first is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading Well in a Distracted Age. A couple things I’ve enjoyed about Jacobs’s book:
Jacobs does not offer strategies, techniques, or formula for getting the most out of a book. He simply explains why and how reading can be enjoyable. His first foundational principle for reading for pleasure is to read at whim:
…for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout–some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene.’ (17)
This is a timely word. In a numbers-obsessed culture–we count steps, calories, proteins, words, pages, sleep hours, etc.–everything has become a standard and a burden. Whimsy is a byword, and joy is suspect.
Don’t misunderstand Jacobs. Whim isn’t an excuse for thoughtlessness and bad taste. If taken seriously, whim will lead to ever expanding horizons, greater beauty, and a hunger for deeper truth. Jacobs makes a distinction between whim and Whim:
In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge–it can become for us a gracious Swiss pedagogue of the mind. (41)
Diligently reading at Whim means being selective, choosing only those books that bring the most pleasure and stir up interest. This is harder than it sounds. Especially, if like me, you constantly stand under the dark cloud of “BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ TO BE EDUCATED.” But reading strictly for numbers and standards isn’t reading. Reading, if done well, is a transformative experience (e.g., On Reading Well). It will change a habit of thought or perception. Reading at Whim facilitates reading well because it precipitates the enjoyment necessary for reading slowly, carefully, and lovingly.
I’d like to think I’ve had such an experience recently. I was at the publicly library and (at whim!) picked up Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read. This is not the kind of book I would normally think to read. But as soon as I flipped through a few of the pages, I added it to my library stack. It’s a fun but also serious analysis of how our minds project images of characters from a story based on the words we see on the page. If I’m not careful, thinking about how reading works while I’m reading can cause me to stall out. It’s like thinking about thinking while thinking: at some point the system crashes.
But Mendelsund’s approach, using images alongside words, avoids the usual problems of reading about reading because he forces your mind to process the same information in multiple ways. The result, so far, is an enriched reading experience. I don’t think I’ll read the same way again.