How We Read

This is an updated version of a post I wrote for students on a course blog. You can see the original here.


It stands to reason that anyone who isn’t a professional reader (teacher/professor/editor/literary critic, e.g.) is an amateur.  One connotation of the word amateur is, “A person who doesn’t get paid for a particular talent.”  In a culture that overwhelmingly–and often erroneously–associates value with money, an amateur is often considered less proficient than a professional who gets paid for doing the same thing.

But it’s the second connotation of amateur that makes something worth doing and life worth living.  The word comes from a French derivation of the Latin verb for “love.”  Amateurs love what they do.  In fact, amateurism is often defined as, “the philosophy that elevates things done without self-interest above things done for pay.”  In this sense, although I have been paid for teaching, consulting, researching, and writing about learning for nearly 30 years, I am a proud amateur.

I’m thinking about this now because of some recent discussions with students about reading.  I understand how important it is to read what you love and to think about the text in your own way.  When I read for pleasure I want to suspend my disbelief and lose myself in the story.  I imagine the characters so intensely that sometimes when I turn the last page I actually miss them a little.  The furthest thing from my mind is whether I can write an essay explaining the author’s tone or theme with a thoughtful analysis of genre or techniques like anaphora or synecdoche.  In fact, analyzing a text in that way distracts me from most of what makes me want to pick up a book in the first place.

We are not alone in thinking this sort of analysis can make a person fall out of love with reading:

However, at this point in history, it’s easier to portray that idea in a movie, where appreciation of the beautiful approximates Schopenhauer‘s pure intellect free of any worldly agenda, than in the average real-world course where the pressures of life so often intrude.  Still, we all want to ensure successful learning (and of course, outcomes on exams, transcripts, etc.).  This demands that we account for our understanding of the tools and techniques authors use to convey their ideas and connect with our experience.  So, in addition to seeing a novel or poem as a work of art that speaks to the human condition

students also need to analyze technical elements of composition to form arguments based on their understanding of academic principles of writing.

Now, you may or may not be interested to know that Leonardo Da Vinci used over 30 layers of paint to add only about half a hair’s depth to a painting that looks like it has no brushstrokes.  But millions of people (including me) have stood just feet away from the painting, gawked in amazement, and wondered how Da Vinci did it.  For centuries this was considered a mystery of genius.  Finally, scientists applied specialized training and tools (flourescence spectrometry & emissiograph, among others) to reveal an art technique that requires its own specific vocabulary (sfumato) to accurately describe.

In literature, perceptual discoveries about technique are more subjective. Therefore, they require more explanation than, “Whoa, just look at that emissiograph!”

Whether or not you care deeply about the techniques Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, and other authors used to create their works, or what these works say or do that make them “classics” in the eyes of scholars, you will be asked to organize and present just such an argument.  Therefore, the question before us becomes: How do we preserve and grow our love of reading while simultaneously mastering the seemingly cold, objective business of analyzing a text in ways that demonstrate our understanding to scholars in the field?

Here’s how.

First: Please read books you love.  Take advantage of the Literature Analysis opportunity to choose your own titles.  It may be hard to find something that appeals right away, but help is available and it is possible.  If you actually exhaust every title and still don’t find something you like, er… well, you’ll be the first.

Second: Seek to better understand the books you don’t love.  Someone more experienced and knowledgeable than you thought they were worth reading; it’s your job to understand why.  Turning up your nose isn’t an option unless you want to look like that spoiled kid who only eats fish sticks.  Sushi isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have any business saying “ugh” unless you can (a) recognize the qualities of truly excellent sushi and (b) explain why the mouthful you just spit out isn’t it.  My students understand that the value of our opinions is a function of evidence and logic, not an inalienable right that others are obligated to accept because we are “entitled.”

Third: Reconsider how you define the word read.  When you were younger, reading in school probably suggested demonstrating basic skills, like sounding out words you didn’t recognize or remembering facts that proved you opened the book.  You were responsible for demonstrating what you saw on the page.  That’s a good first step, but it’s only the starting point of a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to construct or derive meaning.  At this point we are using abstract concepts like literary techniques and connections between works to interpret what isn’t spelled out on the page.

This may be easier to illustrate with something that isn’t literature.  Years ago, my daughter and I sat in the kitchen and made picture frames out of popsicle sticks so we could display the drawings we’d made.  While we chatted about Curious George, I absent-mindedly drew some geometric designs on my popsicle sticks and glued them together.

Then I looked at them again and imagined what they might symbolize.  It turns out you can see the whole story of evolution and the rise and fall of civilization in these popsicle sticks.  Do you see it? Go clockwise from the bottom: the green primordial ooze; the rising oceans; the buildings of civilization; and the fragmented incompleteness of whatever comes next.

Did I intend this?  Don’t be ridiculous.  The only things going through my mind as I drew were thoughts like, “My kid is cute” and “This tiny, hard chair is putting my butt to sleep.”  Many authors didn’t intend for their work to be analyzed the way teachers and students do in school.  But since most of those authors are dead and we can’t ask them what they mean, we use culturally established tools to gain insight into what they wrote.  In the end, whatever tools we use, meaning is constructed by us as readers– I “read” the colors and shapes of my picture frame in such a way that they tell a story.  And, if I can meaningfully contextualize that argument, and present it logically and articulately, I can expand what you see when you look at the same text.  And I don’t have to resort to pop psychology or persuasive appeals that reek of because I said so.

Even though a reading sort of jumped out at me, though, it’s superficial and undeveloped.  I haven’t really discussed the symbology of each shape and color.  I don’t know the technical terms experts would use to do the job.  I loved Art History as a student, but I’m not an expert on art or the techniques that experts use to “read” paintings or sculptures.  Moments like this make me wish I was, if only so I could more effectively explain why my interpretation isn’t just a personal perspective.  This is the approach you should take to your interpretation of literature.  Although you can use textual examples to support and illustrate your interpretations, the meat of your arguments should depend on your understanding, not a summary of texts we can read for ourselves.

So, Fourth: Stop looking for the answers on the page and start developing the expertise and the confidence that will enable you to find them in yourselves.

This is a short life.  You are faced with too many demands and too little time.  Read. Love.  Understand.  Share.  Exams should be opportunities to show what you know, not performances to rehearse.  Practice tests can be a way to benchmark your improvement or bolster your confidence, but there is simply no substitute for reading and discussing great literature.  I’ve watched students dedicate themselves to the study of multiple choice and test prep instead of loving literature– they were some of our best and brightest, and tragically they missed the whole point.  Other students who weren’t known as academic powerhouses surprised themselves (and in some cases, me 🙂 by passing AP exams or graduate comps with flying colors.  They weren’t focused on outcomes, but on the pursuit of what they loved to the best of their abilities.  It happens every year.

Studying for a test or getting a grade is just the short-term goal.  The long-term goal– loving learning and reading as a lifelong opportunity to gain insight and achieve your potential– is infinitely more important.  To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.  Don’t let technical analysis interfere with your love of reading.  Use it as a lens.

Long live the Amateur.

Sapere Aude.