I know how to read, but am I a good reader?
Much of the time I suspect not. I often forget what I’ve just read (even on the same page or in the same paragraph). In my excitement to praise a book I’ve just finished I often get that deflating feeling of not being able to describe its contents; I can’t muster the particulars of what I find so appealing.
And when it comes to picking books, I frequently do so in a pell mell way, deciding what to read like some kind of aimless channel surfer. Choosing because I heard Michael Pollan on a podcast, because my father-in-law had a novel lying on his living room table, putting both aside because Bill Gates says Steven Pinker’s latest is his “new favorite book of all time.”
Our educational system isn’t set up to cultivate — to nurture, to guide, to inspire — those who want to improve their reading skills. I guess it was somewhere around fifth or sixth grade where I was anointed a “good reader,” which was probably true enough from a testing perspective. But then, fast forward a few years. I’m sitting in a small seminar in college, hopped up on enthusiasm at the syllabus. Soon, though, I’m lost, bewildered. The books seem like they contain enviable wisdom (on the printing press as an agent of change, on the postal system’s role in the spread of culture, on the Bible as literature)…and yet so little of it sticks as, and after, I read them.
It hasn’t gotten a whole lot better in the years since. My struggles with books aren’t the only place this difficulty manifests itself. In bookstores (browsing the shelves), on Twitter (ditto: my feed) and facing the printed Sunday edition of The New York Times, I get a feeling that reminds me of that cognitive distress — a kind of low scale mental anguish — I felt back in college. With the Times, I hear the paper’s thud outside our apartment door, the kids are still asleep, the coffee is brewed. I am excited!
I spread the sections on the kitchen table and begin. Whatever section I pick, I usually start in browsing mode. Reading the headlines, checking out captions and pullquotes, turning the pages. Then, not long after, it sets in. I get that fuzzy, agitated sense that my ability to focus, to immerse myself in a kind of sustained contemplation is gone. I’ll start reading an article and, as often as not, find myself distracted by another section, incapable of finishing anything. Soon enough I have flipped through every section, seen every headline, and barely read anything.
In my mid-twenties I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For two years I wrote — sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes well, sometimes not. But the overall approach made sense: assemble a group of dedicated, devoted writers, situate us and our work alongside veteran practitioners, and point us all in the right direction. As it happened, I ended up getting diverted by an interest in technology and journalism. But some of the biggest lessons on writing — on the purposeful maneuvers, the anatomy of stories (what’s working, what’s not), the value of repeated re-writing — have stayed with me throughout my career.
I want something like that for my “career” as a reader. Arguably what I do as a reader is as important to my work as what I write. And while the latter is the deliverable I provide to clients, it’s the reading I do that fuels much of what write about.
I feel like I need help becoming a better reader.
So, fellow book, article, and essay lovers, I’m putting this out there, asking for help: what’s your favorite tool, tactic, course — or whatever — for becoming a better reader?