You can’t win if you don’t learn to read

Re/Connecting People, the Written Word, and the Delight of Discovery.

Everyone must learn to read. You can’t get anywhere in this world if you can’t read. Whatever else you do in life, you will have to navigate a world of contracts, warranties, and user agreements.

Reading is essential to surviving and thriving in today’s world.

“Learn to read” is different than “go to school” or “do your homework.” To read well, you have to love to read.  To do anything really well, you have to love it at least enough to keep going when it gets difficult. This is why I so often refer to the idea of “Passionate Craft.”

Sadly, for many students, learning to read is too much pain and too little pleasure.  Their only experience is choking down force-fed texts that they associate with the boring, difficult job of going to school.

Learning to read is more than the beautiful journey of fiction, or the boundless possibilities of poetry. When we learn to read, we come home to our own minds. A person with no remembered dreams sparked by bedtime stories is missing out on an entire region of their consciousness. She will be less likely to associate books with imagination, escape, or possibility. Where, then, is hope?

Please read books you love.

Enter Open Source Learning and the importance of agency.  Each one of us must discover what we are willing to dedicate ourselves to in order to learn.  To do that, we have to rekindle the curiosity and the passion that drives us to explore our world in the first place.  The desire to explore transforms reading from the Obstacle to the Way.

That’s just the selfish part.  Whether or not you read is important to the rest of us, too.  In Ray Bradbury’s words, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture.  You just have to get people to stop reading them.”

In one high school course I started the conversation with students like this:



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 25 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, it’s easier to portray that idea in a movie. Characters are Schopenhauer‘s pure intellect, free of any worldly agenda. In the real-world classroom, we constantly feel the pressures of life.

But whatever stress we feel about grades and tests only makes it more important to account for our understanding of the tools and techniques authors use to convey their ideas.  So, in addition to seeing a novel or poem as a work of art that speaks to the human condition, you will also need to analyze technical elements of composition to form arguments based on your 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 Da Vinci’s technique was considered a mystery of genius.  Finally, scientists applied specialized training and tools (flourescence spectrometry & emissiograph, among others) to reveal the technique: sfumato.

In literature, perceptual discoveries about authors’ techniques are more subjective, and therefore require more explanation than, “Whoa, just look at that emissiograph!”

The techniques that Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, and others used to create their works are the coursework of literature.

The question before us is this: How can we preserve and grow a love of reading while simultaneously mastering the seemingly cold, objective business of analyzing a text in ways that demonstrate understanding to scholars in the field?


First: Please read books you love. Go beyond the course syllabus. If you actually exhaust every title and still don’t find something that appeals to you, 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, and it’s your job to understand why.  Turning up your nose isn’t an option unless you want to look like that spoiled kid in a great seafood restaurant 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.  The 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.” Learn to read – to appreciate – the texts that don’t automatically jump out at you.

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. When I say “learn to read,” I’m also saying, “learn to think.”


This may be easier to illustrate with something that isn’t literature.  Once my daughter and I made picture frames out of popsicle sticks and glued drawings inside them.  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 of the authors we read didn’t intend for their work to be analyzed the way we do it in this course.  But since most of them 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 authors use, readers construct meaning – I “read” the colors and shapes of my picture frame in such a way that they tell a story.


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, and I don’t even know the technical terms experts would use.  I loved art history when I was a student, but I’m not an expert on art or the techniques that experts use to “read” paintings or sculptures.

Although you can use textual examples to support and illustrate your interpretations, the meat of your arguments should depend on your understanding. We want to know what you think, not a summary of text we can read for ourselves.

As Mike Tyson put it, “It’s good to know how to read, but it’s dangerous to know how to read and not how to interpret what you’re reading.”

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 have too many demands and too little time.  Read. Love. Understand.  Share. Exams and school papers should be opportunities to show what you know, not performances to rehearse. There is simply no substitute for reading and discussing great literature.

Every year, students dedicate themselves to the study of multiple choice instead of loving literature. What difference does getting an ‘A’ make if you can’t tell the difference between a restaurant menu and a suicide note? If you really learn to read, you can sustain your momentum on your own. Magic happens over time. Readers surprise themselves and everyone else with their deep and sudden insights. They don’t focus on outcomes. They pursue what they loved to the best of their abilities.  It happens all the time.

Stop looking for the answers on the page. Start developing the expertise and the confidence that will enable you to find them in yourselves.

Loving learning and reading is a lifelong opportunity. Gaining insight and achieving your potential is infinitely more important than any test or grade.  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. Learn to read.

Sapere Aude.


[Originally published on Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2014-2015]