How to Read a Book

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

When I say that I’m going to talk about reading a book I have to full stop and remember to define:

A book is the thing developed throughout the cultural process as oral story become translated into physical symbols, scratched on a parchment or velum with ink or a clay tablet with a stylus so that it could be passed from one person to another, one generation to another. People have been etching their stories into rocks and cave walls for as long as their brains were big enough for it to matter.

Soon enough the parchments were bound into codexes and books with spines. After the printing press came around the process got much easier and faster. Today, electronic transference of files sends manuscripts to printers thousands of miles away and whips out copies that are shipped anywhere.

People still hold these odd compilations of paper with writing on them in their hands. Even though our minds are being twisted to think in electronic, chopped up fragments and characters, many people still enjoy the experience of reading books. Not just a newspaper or magazine. Entire books. Against all odds, people want to open a cover and start a story, read the poetry, discover the history, explore their faith, fly with the fantasy that one or more people thought should be confined to several hundred pages. Something with a beginning and an end. People still do it.

After children’s books, I remember the first novel I read as a young adult. The first one. At the time it seemed like I was hiking around an unknown lake through the mist. But then I finished it. And started the next one. That, I suppose, was the beginning of an addiction and the reason a pile of to-be-read books always stares at me from my side table. And what I discovered later is that you cannot write a word unless you’ve read a word, lots of words.

So, on to reading a book. After you’ve passed the several hundred mark of books you’ve read you realize that you approach a book like a curious detective. No matter if the book is fiction, non-fiction, poetry, an anthology of several authors, you want to know what this thing is. You want to know the author or authors. If it’s historical you want to know just where that history is set. If it’s fiction you want to know what realm you are investigating.

Because you’ve done it before, you have an idea how long it will take, but not always, because books can fool you. Some are ponderous and you spend hours musing on imponderables. And then again there are the breeze-right-through books that take you on a wild ride and they are done before you started, leaving you wanting for more.

Some books will wait for you. By that I mean you can impolitely walk away, take a break, return and pick it up and start in where you left off with hardly any effort. Other books require your soul and they become resentful when you put them down. They are jealous of your time. They demand you make a choice; it’s either them or nothing. Like temperamental lovers, they are often the best ones.

Don’t become too impatient too fast. Really good storytellers warm you up at the beginning. No rush. Lay it out one piece at a time. Don’t hurry the punch line. And just when you think you might lose interest and wonder where it’s going the strings tie together and you are in the clutches of the spider who wrapped you in her web. Just wait.

Of course you have to be willing to enter the mind of the author, the character, the reader that is you in that world. It’s a form of surrender to story time. And when someone looks at you reading and suggests that you might do something really important, that’s when you should refrain from killing them on the spot. That’s an impulse that should be controlled.

Some books live with you forever as a separate thing. They have a life of their own. You can quote them, invite a character or two to dinner. Other books are just layered into the collage of book world, added to the thousands of other insights and questions you already have. Some books can’t be understood or understood well when you are too young. Some books require that you suffer a little before they spill their guts to you. And some books require that you read other books first, crawling before you walk.

Books become your friends, enemies, lovers, wise crones, disturbers, revealers, guides and healers. And back behind the page are worlds of thought, imagination and passion that wait like predators to snag unsuspecting victims off of life’s ordinary path. Sometimes you can read too much, too many things at once, pick up the next book too quickly before you’ve fully digested the last one. Some books require space and time to ponder them before the next one demands your attention.

The reason some books become classics and are not found in the bargain book box at Sams is because they are universal in their staying power. They are written well and not all books are. They address the human themes that matter not only for us but for many generations. No matter the strange use of language, the plot rings true, the characters appear as real, and the insights transcendent. Defining what is a classic is often the product of culture or who has the power to do so. But like cream, they often rise to the top. In the Milky Way of books their brightness stands out.

Some things you know only because you do it a lot. And then, like reading a book, that becomes an art. A way of knowing, I suppose. I remember a time when I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to live life not just read about life. How stupid that was. Living life does not preclude also entering a larger world of reading alongside that living. And when we do, when we take up the next title with a sense of adventure and expectation, it is as though we sit in front of a crackling fire, introduce ourselves, and ask, “Now, what do you have to tell me?”

Comments
  1. jane mcguire says:

    Yes, yes, yes. Brought tears to my eyes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s