Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Art of Reading

I've decided that reading is an art. Just as painting and music have many disciplines, and multitudes of forms of expression, so too does reading. I'm not referring to writing here, although that too is an art of many forms, I mean reading. How one approaches a novel, a poem, a biography, non-fiction, textbooks, or even a technical manual - any and all forms of reading done every day - requires a type of artistry.

The artistry comes, not in how fast or how slowly we read, nor does it refer merely to comprehension, although both of those have an importance of their own. I believe that the art comes into play when by reading we begin to learn, infer, compare, share, and finally to take it in to become a part of who we are. I began to arrive at this concept when I went back to college as an adult, pursuing a different degree. The college I attended had requirements of all its students, regardless of what courses they had taken elsewhere, or how similar they were. I found that understandable, because a degree with a college's name on it should represent the school as well as the graduate. Therefore, one of the courses I took was called a "Senior Seminar," each of which covered a topic of the Professor's choice. My particular course covered modern American history, beginning with the lead-in to World War II, and forward through the McCarthy Era, and then "The Great Society" and so on. We were told at the beginning of the semester by our Professor that we would be given a number of quizzes along with the usual mid-term and final exams. The quizzes would mostly be comprised of questions about our regular, daily and/or weekly reading assignments, and also that none of the quizzes or exams would contain "trick" questions, and that all tests would have only straight-forward questions and answers. He also said that should an alternate answer to a question be discovered, the person who gave that answer would receive full credit for it, even if he or she had not given the answer he had been looking for, but could reasonably be construed as a correct answer, given the student's interpretation of what had been read. This interpretation had, however, to be backed up with a thorough explanation and justification.

I have never been a fan of textbooks, unless they are very well-written and engaging enough to hold my attention, and thus my ability, to a degree, to absorb what I read. My so-called "art" allows me to read and comprehend even those books that I do not particularly care for. But my reading artistry absolutely does not cover all types of books. I can read one page over and over and over again, and if I am not interested, I remember nothing, and am totally unable to form any sort of cogent summary of what I have read. This embarrasses me tremendously, most especially because I consider myself a reader, and therefore an artist. That's why I have created categories of the "reader's art" - to give me an excuse for not being able to read and comprehend certain types of written material.

One of the very first books we were assigned to read was a rather small volume (perhaps 150 pages) covering pre-war Japan and the American political relationship with that nation. This time, my inability to read had nothing to do with lack of interest in the subject; it simply was written in a form that was beyond my apparently limited comprehension. I didn't read this book once. I guess you could say I never really "read" it, but I certainly pronounced every word of that slim volume in my head at least five times. Anticipating a quiz soon on the contents, I started to panic, as my usual art had somehow disappeared. What was discussed and explained in the book was not particularly difficult to understand, but for me, it was impossible to retain! Even though I knew that there would be no trick questions, I nevertheless was able to come up with at least three or four of what I felt were plausible answers to each question, this being accomplished by over-analyzing each and every question way beyond the question's intent. Needless to say, I did not do well on this quiz, which further embarrassed me, especially as I attempted, openly, during class time, to justify each and every one of my incorrect answers by pointing out what I felt were obtuse questions that could be interpreted in a number of ways. The course for me went downhill from there. My embarrassment was even further compounded by the fact that the professor was a member of the church my husband was serving and of which I was also a member.

I have done my best to put this whole classroom experience behind me, and have now chalked it up to the fact that the required reading was just "not my style" of art. Oh brother! However, as well as I am able to retain other types of writing, even to the point of being able to memorize some passages with one reading, I continue to ponder the art of reading. Assuming that all the writing is of the same approximate level of expertise (a grand assumption, I admit; but just for argument's sake), why is some of it so impossible for me to take in and others so easy? Interest in the subject may sometimes be the difference, but that certainly is not the rule in my case. How likable the subject or style also does not change my ability, nor alter my art. So many books that I find reprehensible or downright boring, I am quite capable of giving you an outline of, years after I have read it. The answer to this is a mystery to me, so I therefore think about it in the same terms as visual art or music appreciation. One of my very best friends and I have an argument that has gone on for many, many years over the music of Richard Wagner. She is firmly and (to me) a rabidly dedicated lover of all his music. I on the other hand feel exactly the opposite. While I might be able to sit still through some of his earlier orchestral works out of politeness to the persons next to me, I simply cannot bear his operas. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Twain, who said, "I'm sure his music is better than it sounds." Comments like these bring the two of us close to blows; as a matter of fact I think I recall a couple of times early on in high school when we might have come more than just close! (Probably over some comment of mine such as "Wagner: the original Nazi!")

So, gentle readers and followers of my blog (who have YET to sign in as such!), do you have an answer to my question, a way out of my quandary in reference to reading being an art? Is one's taste solely responsible for the ability to take the writing in as part of yourself, or is it something different, some ineffable quality, a "bonding of the artistry of the writer with the art of the reader?"


  1. I feel that it is not as much an art of "reading" per se, as an art of "comprehension." I don't think it's the act of reading that is the artform. I think its the ability to retain that which you have read that would separate one person from another. I am a very slow reader, in my own mind. I feel this is because of my theatrical education. I, basically, learned to read by reading plays. Therefore, I try to memorize every word on the page. I have no ability to "skim". I have to read every word, and each character must have a separate voice, like I would see in a movie. Though slow, it makes the comprehension more lifelike for me.

    Love you

  2. I get what you mean, but I still see it as an art...though comprehension probably is a part of that art. However, comprehension is very subjective and constantly in flux. Each time you read something you get a different feeling or take away something different or in addition to what you did before. Also, I can give you a very astute "explanation" of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, having read it in a number of forms, from the more simple to the quite complex, and even be able to give a very cogent, understandable, and even correct summary of it, and truly comprehend not one iota of it. Spitting back words from memory can be easily done for most people, and to some degree is part of the art of reading, but being able to add to your recitation the nuances of the "voice" of the author or playwright, reflecting true understanding of the writer's intentions - now that is a big part of the "art" of reading. Like I said, it has nothing to do with how slowly or how quickly you read, the art comes in to what you do with what you have read. I still see reading as an art, and as you said, comprehension is a big part of it.(I also add voices in my head, and put faces to the characters, as well, and am therefore often disappointed when I see a play actually performed, or see a movie based on the book - they never match up, or seldom do, to what I imagined.) But while I have always felt that "true art" of the ageless or timeless variety (spoken of in another blog), is a constant...why isn't every art? What changes? Is it only our perceptions, or does it have more to do with the ever-changing symbiosis of the reader with the writer? Maybe I ought to try and read that damn tectbook again! :-)

  3. I remember trying to read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving. It was IMPOSSIBLE to read. It took me about 30 minutes to read one page! This was due, either wholey or in part, to the English language as it was when it was written. I was so disappointed. He used 50 words where he could have used 10. It drove me up the wall. I never finished it.

  4. I remember when you tried reading it, and understand most of your frustration of it. (And also how much you enjoyed the Johnny Depp movie!) Novels from that period were, indeed, wordy - to say the least - but it is a style you can become comfortable with, if given the time. Of course, I have yet to become comfortable with James Joyce (of more recent vintage), and find that his writing either makes me feel stupid or superior, depending on which day I try to read him...needless to say I have never finished any of his works, except maybe one, and that was probably because I had to!

  5. Though I consider myself an intelligent person, and intelligent people are often assumed to be great readers, I have never considered myself a great reader. Whereas I enjoy reading, I read quite slowly, and when I love a book and analyze it deeply from many different levels, I often take away the deep levels for years to come and completely forget the basic plotline and character names days later. So I completely identify with your crisis! Also, I have never been good at reading school books. I've always gotten by, but my retention is incredibly low and my comprehension changes as I begin to discuss with others. I think my particular skill lies in discussing books. I'm better at that, but that might just be from my inherent socialness and the fact that I learn best by talking (which is where, I believe, my predilection for languages comes in). :-) I did like this concept, though!