Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading – the shape of the action itself – that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.
If, like me, you have lived long enough to have experienced life – and reading – before the internet, perhaps you have now found your attention span shortened and your ability to sit and read for an hour (or more) nil. The effects on our minds of the disjointed, fragmentary, and addictive nature of the digitized world – and the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices – are well documented. Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that “the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.” Our brains work one way when trained to read in logical, linear patterns, and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, and screen to screen. These effects on the brain are amplified by technology developers who intentionally build addictive qualities into programs in order to increase user engagement, as some industry leaders have acknowledged. Whether you feel you have lost your ability to read well, or you never acquired that ability at all, be encouraged. The skills required to read well are no great mystery. Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.
Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page. In nearly three decades of teaching literature, I’ve noticed that many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that they often skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean. This habit of the mind can be seen in the body. When I ask students to describe or restate a line or passage, often their first response is to turn their eyes upward in search of a thought or an idea, rather than to look down at the words on the page in front of them where the answer actually lies. Attending to the words on the page requires deliberation, and this improves with practice.
Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.
On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.
Also, read slowly. Just as a fine meal should be savored, so, too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through. Certainly, some reading material merits a quick read, but habitual skimming is for the mind what a steady diet of fast food is for the body. Speed-reading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits: one critic cautions that reading fast is simply a “way of fooling yourself into thinking you’re learning something.” When you read quickly, you aren’t thinking critically or making connections. Worse yet, “speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence.” Don’t be discouraged if you read slowly. Thoughtfully engaging with a text takes time. The slowest readers are often the best readers, the ones who get the most meaning out of a work and are affected most deeply by literature. Seventeenth-century Puritan divine Richard Baxter writes, “It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good; but the well reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.”
Read with a pen, pencil, or highlighter in hand, marking in the book or taking notes on paper. The idea that books should not be written in is an unfortunate holdover from grade school, a canard rooted in a misunderstanding of what makes a book valuable. The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages.
This excerpt is taken from On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2018). Used by permission.
Images used by permission of the artist.