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How to read a book

How to read a book

THERE’S a wonderfully hideous book by Mortimer Adler, written in 1940, called How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. According to Adler, an American philosopher and author, there are four levels of analytical reading. At every stage the author warns the reader to keep checking with himself whether his comprehension skills are up to the mark. Hint: they won’t be.

First, elementary reading — learning to make sense of words and sentences — is taught to children in school, but Adler argues that that’s where it ends for most people. At the second, structural stage, the reader has to figure out what problem the author is trying to solve. The inspectional stage involves a reading to work out the author’s arguments. In the fourth, critical stage, the reader has to critique the author’s arguments and evaluate the book.

Each level is broken down into more and more elements: the superficial reading level of the inspectional stage, for example. Adler urges readers to take notes and read the book as if they are submitting it to an X-ray; he also helpfully provides a list of recommended books and plays that a reader should read in order to “grow the mind.” All the books are by Western authors only, because according to the author, Western readers would find Eastern books too weird and difficult, thus defeating the stated purpose of “growing the mind”.

Adler’s title attempts to answer the question of how to read a book in such a manner so as to completely kill the joy of reading for anyone. After I skimmed through How to Read a Book, it was no surprise to me that writer and editor Dwight MacDonald said, “Mr Adler once wrote a book called How to Read a Book. He should now read a book called How to Write a Book.

This quip captures much of the communication between me and my readers. Many of them write to me because they want my advice about how they, too, can write a book and be published. Others are university students writing about my books for their academic papers and ask me to provide them with more insight into my work to help them with their assignments. These latter requests sometimes make me wonder whether I’ve failed in my attempt to write a novel or a short story if the reader has to write and ask me for clarification (this is before I realise they’re asking me to do their homework for them).

But in any case, how do you read a book? I won’t talk about teaching a child how to read, but instead focus on how adults often approach the question of ‘how’ to read. First, there are people who want to know how to read many books, in order to amass as much general knowledge as they can. These are usually people who concern themselves with speed-reading or information retention. They seem to have confused reading with robotics, as the human brain can only take in so much information before it has to drop some of it out. Reading like this is akin to a hamster running on a wheel: a fruitless exercise undertaken to assuage the ego rather than the soul.

Then there are those who hope to read with enough comprehension to understand what the author wishes to communicate. In this case, it’s good to ask yourself if you’re reading as a reader, a lover of literature, a book reviewer, or a critic. Why are you reading this book? For a class assignment? For a book club? Are you reading it because everyone else is and you think you should, too?

Once you understand your own motivations for reading, you’ll more easily understand an author’s motivations for writing. Not by magic, but by making your own position clear, you start to realise how you’re going to approach the book. Will you read it to enjoy it or to critique it, to discuss it in a book club or write about it academically, which means weighing its strengths and weaknesses? It’s possible to do all, but recognise that you’ll have to switch hats when thinking about the book during and after you’re reading it, reading it first for sheer enjoyment and then for critique and comprehension.

This brings me to the level at which a writer hopes a reader will read a book; to engage with its ideas, to struggle with them and to compare them to the reader’s own understanding of life, to see what fits and what doesn’t, and to adjust their own philosophies accordingly. This is the way Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing thinks about reading. In her 1971 preface to a new edition of her feminist classic The Golden Notebook, she instructs readers to “read what I have written and make up your own mind about what you think, testing it against your own life, your own experience”.

Lessing continues with this: “There is only one way to read: that is to browse in bookshops and libraries, pick up books that attract you, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — never because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement.”

I must admit that when I read this, I felt relieved. For several years I’ve found myself reading in a peculiar fashion, or at least different from how I had grown up reading books. In those days I’d devote myself to every word, reading from beginning to end, not daring to skip even a single page let alone an entire section. More recently, I’ve found myself reading differently when not for enjoyment, but for structure, to understand how a book is put together (a necessary part of my job as a writer).

No longer do I read word by word. I pay particular attention to the beginning of a book because the set-up for the rest of the novel is encoded in those first pages. I skip back and forth, going to the parts that interest me, reading the most important or climactic parts (thanks to the internet, I can now find where those are). I’ll skip forward to the end so that I know the general path of the book, the roadmap to its twists and turns. And a secret: everyone skips to the racy parts so no need to feel bad about that, as there’s great drama, emotion, and humanity even on those pages.

Unfortunately, as Lessing observed, once you’ve understood exactly how a novel works, you’ll lose your desire to engage with it anymore.

When I asked Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine how he reads a book, he responded: “I like books that have something adventurous about them, not necessarily in plot, but in how they sound, the voice of the author, the inventiveness and where the book takes me. I love idiosyncratic writing, reading something that I have never come across its like before. Basically, I want to be dazzled, or as Blanche DuBois says, ‘I want magic. Yes, yes, magic.’”

In the end, there is no method or system that can teach you how to read a book. As a reader, you must demand of any writer that inexplicable and special element that sparks a fire in your heart. You know it when you come across words and ideas that not only speak to you, but reach out to you and envelop you in a hug you’ll remember for days, maybe years. There is, in my mind, really no other way to really read a book.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2016

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