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Readers

2013 July 24
tags: ,
by Jabiz

I was not a huge reader in school. I liked books and I read what was required, but I was not a bury-your-nose-in-a-book-at-all-times kind of worm. Not like some kids I see in my classes today. That is until my last year in high school, when our student teacher Mr. Schmitt walked into class with a bag full books he had bought with his own money and asked us not to tell anybody what we were about to read.

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”

That was all it took. That opening sentence. I was hooked on books. I’m still not sure what made him feel that reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a group of seventeen year old was a good idea, but thank goodness he did. Because after that I started to devour books.  I started by reading everything Thompson ever wrote. Following names and ideas from his pages, I read The Beats, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I developed an insatiable appetite for books and ideas that I have barely begun to satiate twenty years later. In short, I love books. I have been reading one book after another since I was nineteen. I do not understand people who “do not read.” What does that even mean?

My point? Patience, I am getting there. During my lifelong stint with reading I have only not ever finished two books. (That I admit to, there are a few others Pale Fire and Dante’s Inferno should be on the list too)  Not finishing those two books haunts me to this day, because I was three quarters of the way through both before some freak incident made me stop. I was 900+ pages in War and Peace when a move to Angola forced me to abort the book, and I just couldn’t pick up steam again.  If I had to read one more fifty page description of a battle or a ball, I would have killed myself. The second book?  Again 900+ pages into Don Quixote before a tsunami literary washed it away.

I hated both of those books, but I was determined to finish them. And the fact that they lay half baked in my reading repertoire bothers me to no end. I will, someday, go back and start from the beginning and finish them both. Because I want to be able to say honestly and wholeheartedly that I have never not finished a book. Making this declaration is important to me.

Why you may ask? Who cares? Life is too short, you may say. Why waste time on reading what you don’t like? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, reading what you don’t like and never putting a book down, no matter how boring or difficult is the point of this post.

At the start of summer I began to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. After nearly two hundred pages I was still not sold. His scattered verbose meta-narrative style just wasn’t doing it for me. I complained on facebook and was told by many friends to stop wasting my time and just move onto something I would like. At that moment, the seed for this post was sown. A few days later I saw the film Liberal Arts in which the two main characters have this great conversation about reading books for fun.

Before I get started let me state that I know there is no one way to read. I am fully aware that my OCD with text is abnormal, and yes I know I too sound a bit like a snob. I can handle that. Here’s the thing– books for me are not entertainment. I have Master Chef and lame Hollywood super hero movies for brain numbing junk food. Books are my sustenance, my protein. They are my exercise. I am a bit nervous about pushing this exercise metaphor as I do not actually exercise, but conceptually I understand the concept– you push your body beyond physical comfort to force your muscles to exert extra energy, which in turn helps them stay fit and grow. This is the same reason I read. Books are dumbbells and elliptical machines for my brain, my heart, and my ideas.

I read books to help keep my intellect and imagination fit. I read books to help me write. I read critically, intensely and with passion. I seldom, if ever, will pick up a random book cause it looks fun or easy. I do research. I choose books that I hope will stimulate me. I choose books that I think will be a good work-out. So when I make a commitment to read a thousand pages of Rushdie over the summer I am not just going to stop because I don’t like it. Liking it has nothing to do with why I chose it. At this point in regime, I am forcing my brain to articulate why I don’t like it. What about it do I like? What is working in terms of craft and style. I read as a writer, not for pleasure. I return page after page, rep after rep like exercise in order to be a better thinker.

My point–  as a teacher what do you tell your students who want to give up on books. As I mentioned earlier, I know that an unyielding commitment to books is my style and may not the best way to read for everyone. There are many ways to read. I get that. There are also many kinds of readers, and forcing a struggling reader to finish a book he hates may do more damage than good. I get that.But at what point to we ask our students to get on the bench and pump the weight.

In closing, by no means am I making a judgment on people who stop books or choose to read for fun. I guess I am looking for some well argued reasons why people read for pleasure or feel that it is okay to abandon books when they do not meet our expectations. I want to hear from you about what kind of reader you are and how you talk to your students about books. If you are a student, I would love to hear about your reading routines.

What kind of reader are you? How do you mentor the readers in your class? Am I crazy? Where do you agree? Disagree with what I have said?

For the record, I am now almost half way through the Midnight’s Children and things have changed! There is a bizarre magic realism plot forming (weirdly like the X-Men) and I am finally finding my groove. I am actually enjoying it. Glad I did not give up. Sometimes the best things are the ones that are the hardest to get to.

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. avatar
    Alison Armstrong
    Twitter: alisonmusicblog
    permalink
    July 24, 2013

    I’ve found my taste in what I read changing more and more towards non-fiction as I get older. It makes me feel like I’m becoming more and more like my father, and I didn’t expect that to ever happen!
    My parents house is wall to wall bookshelves, mostly European and American history, South East Asian linguistics textbooks (my dad’s specialisation long ago) a little bit of anthropology (we lived in Papua New Guinea for a while), Art History and literary classics pre-WW2. The dining table had to be cleared by 7pm every night so that my dad could watch the news without interruption and after the news you could frequently find my dad poring through his books with a glass of port in hand.
    He never hesitated to buy me books or to read to me and was my own personal wikipedia for whatever I was studying at school, but he could also bore me to tears! He is still equal parts fascinating and boring, so I’m amused to find myself lining my bookshelves and my mind with non fiction to both fascinate and bore. Here’s what you’ll find me reading late in the evening or on the train to work- neuroscience and music, music history, and lately geography and anthropology (I’m midway through Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday at the moment). I just hope I’m a little more adept than my dad at recognising when I’m boring someone with the latest thing I’ve read!

  2. avatar
    July 24, 2013

    Like you, Jabiz, I was never a reader in school. Sure, I played the part. I held up the class book, even turned to the right page the teacher was referring to, but it was always a task, a chore, an exercise to be completed. Back then we were told what to read, how much to read, and how to respond to my reading. No wonder I never caught on.

    It wasn’t until my senior seminar of college where my professor had us read a book a week and talk about it. We filed in that first seminar day, and I expected her to lead our discussion, point out things we should have noticed or wondered. But she didn’t. She sat back and listened. And we discussed. There were no right answers, only questions that made us dig deeper like, “What made you think that?” “How does that fit with what we already know?” and “Are there any other possibilities?” What she was doing was teaching us to think for ourselves through reading not read to understand her thinking. To me, it was pure magic. I didn’t know it then, but it would influence my teaching to this day.

    As far as your reading is concerned, I don’t think you’re crazy. In fact, I admire your tenacity. Wish I had some of it. To use your exercise metaphor, you remind me of a seasoned marathon reader. You have developed a sophisticated reading plan, you stick to, and it motivates you to no end. For those of us who are 5k or 10k readers, we admire it, but can’t imagine doing it ourselves. Some of us may wonder why you are so determined. Ever seen one of those runners with a belt full of gels and bottles sweating it out on the pavement?

    And for some of my students who barely even put their reading shoes on let alone go for a quick jog, getting that right book in their hands is crucial. I’m not worried if they abandon one or two as long as it doesn’t become a habit. Instead, I want them to find one that works, one where they have something to say–a reaction to share, a connection to make, a question to ask. That’s what will get them going to the next book and the next book until they are on their way.

  3. avatar
    John T. Spencer
    Twitter: johntspencer
    permalink
    July 24, 2013

    My journey was a little different. I finished everything I read, starting around the fourth grade. I read a ton of non-fiction and a decent amount of fiction. I had “big” reasons for reading novels: embracing the voice of a narrator, rethinking a philosophy, making sense out of human psychology, thinking about the theme, understanding the worldview of not only the characters, but also the space of the setting.

    I stayed away from anything that felt like entertainment. And somewhere in the middle of college, I realized that reading wasn’t fun. It was fun in that sense that people say running marathons is fun. But it was also grueling.

    Then I read the Harry Potter series. I still read it with a critical eye, but I also realized that some of the character-driven classics are shitty stories. No, really. They don’t build up anticipation the way a good story should. I started to read novels that I had previously called “fluff.” I zipped through the Percy Jackson series, for example.

    I still read with a critical eye. I still force myself to finish hard works (for me, War and Peace was tough, but Anna Karenina was tougher). But I think I’ve found a balance of sorts. Sometimes I’m looking for great writing. Other times, I’m looking for great story-telling.

  4. avatar
    Jabiz permalink*
    July 24, 2013

    Thanks guys. Not sure I have much to add at this point, I just love hearing people talk about their reading lives.

    I do feel that I should be reading more YA lit so as I can relate to my students more, but it all feels so poorly written. Any recommendations, would be appreciated. I liked Hunger Games for what its worth.

    For clarity, I do not think that inflicting my obsession on young reasons is necessarily a good idea. I agree that you should try on books until you find ones that fit, but at some point I think that students (competent readers) should be forced beyond their comfort zones and forced to do the hard work of reading. We owe it to them to show them that reading works beyond pleasure. It is more than a hobby. It is a lifestyle.

  5. avatar
    William Chamberlain
    Twitter: wmchamberlain
    permalink
    July 24, 2013

    I’ve read a semi full of books in my life. I would guess 95% were brain candy. I do read to learn, I am reading 4 books for school right now, but I prefer to read for pleasure. I read non fiction critically but I want to get lost in fiction. Let’s face it I have had some great adventures sitting alone in my room reading.

  6. avatar
    Aron permalink
    July 25, 2013

    I’m studying for a literature degree now: I have rules, and keep track of what I read, and work towards quotas, and try to read nothing irrelevant to my course. My reading list has become an exercise in triage—and, on the whole, it’s rewarding. Wallace rewards effort; so does Chaucer, though it took me a long time to acknowledge that. I finish every book I start, and I think that’s an important habit.

    But this isn’t what the reading experience is like for most people today. My private theory is that the internet, principally, diverts us down gullies and channels that subtract meaningfully from reading time. (Reading has become an active choice: nobody now reads to stave boredom away.) It’s hard to generalise about this, because people with access to Rushdie compose only a sub-section of the world’s population, but I suspect that while literacy as a whole increases, the proportion of people seriously involved in—or at least habitually exposed to—high literary culture has plunged.

    I don’t really have a meaningful answer to any of this. I couldn’t quite justify why I think books are so important at the moment; not, at least, without feeling like my University experience is pressing me towards that justification. (Cognitive dissonance, I guess.)

    But talking about books is important. I admire Pale Fire greatly but struggled to get started, and raced through the Hunger Games trilogy in excitement and guilt. (Harry Potter I never regretted in this way, I think because it’s so well done.) Maybe there are two poles to the reading experience: sheer hunger for narrative, something we also gratify with TV, and the cinema, and youtube videos, and anecdotes; and, developing out of but separate from it, the aesthetic. Simplistic as this sounds, even to me, I sometimes believe that this pairing (or, say, pulp and Finnegans Wake) composes the defining binary of modern narrative forms.

    And that divisions strikes me as immensely important to the act of teaching. How can you inculcate in somebody the hunger to read the difficult?

    • avatar
      Jabiz permalink*
      July 25, 2013

      Wow Aron! So good to hear from you again. It has been so long. Proud of you for studying Lit at school. It must have been your grade 8 English teacher who helped you down that path. Ha! Anyway, thanks for contributing to the conversation in such an intense intellectual way.

      I wish you were on Twitter so we could stay on touch. Thanks again. I love your question at the end:

      How can you inculcate in somebody the hunger to read the difficult?

      That is what I am still trying to figure out.

      • avatar
        Aron permalink
        July 27, 2013

        It definitely was! I don’t think I ever had as good an English teacher again.

        I’m not on twitter—too distractible, I think— but I am planning to post some writing online soon. If/when this happens I will let you know.

  7. avatar
    Shruti Tewari
    Twitter: sbtewari
    permalink
    July 25, 2013

    I loved reading in Elementary School. I was one of those students who would hide a book under the over the school reading in Middle School ( I would have finished the assigned reading at home and was on to another book while the whole class finished the class book). I didn’t read much in High School but started again at college. I love reading; it is a form of entertainment for me.
    When I read I always notice things and underline and highlight and write in the margins (my parents cringe when they see my books all marked up). I have not completed a few novels; maybe I will get to them sometime, maybe I won’t. I enjoy reading as I become aquatinted with people, cultures, countries, and situations that may be like mine or are nothing like mine. I definitely learn as but I think I read more for pleasure and love it!

  8. avatar
    Natalie
    Twitter: angeldanger
    permalink
    July 25, 2013

    Been following your blog since early this year

    I absolutely enjoyed reading in secondary school as they call it in Singapore (equivalent of HS). Never really paid attention in class cause books and playscripts were more of my thing. Got caught way too many times for reading under my desk and fought with my teachers to return me the Terry Brooks books which I borrowed from my folks collection at home to read. Anything to do with cultural studies. One of my other personal favorites would be the Dalai Lama- Freedom in Exile and Albert Camus- The Plague. Playscripts wise, Arthur Miller, Ken Campbell, Oscar Wilde and Eugene O’Neill were my thing. Looked forward to heading to the redbrick National Library (now demolished/converted into the Fort Canning Tunnel) to borrow scripts from there and carbon copy them to read during lesson time! Crazy to think that all this happened 12, 13 years ago…

    Not reading anything for the moment since I’ve got a deadline for a first grade close passage book due really soon with the publishers.

  9. avatar
    September 20, 2013

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that I read more non fiction, particularly history and science books. Great fan of Bill Bryson – his ‘A Brief History of Everything’ is sublimely wonderful and exciting to read – and a wonderful blend of the two genres.

    However, with literature, I’ve turned to Audible – going back to my childhood, it’s wonderful having stories read to me again. Every night, I plug in the iPod, rest my weary eyes and drift into a world of fantasy. I can listen to anything from science fiction – I’m listening to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series at the moment. to classic literature – recently Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby to mention but a few.

    Best of both worlds…

  10. avatar
    September 20, 2013

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that I read more non fiction, particularly history and science books. Great fan of Bill Bryson – his ‘A Brief History of Everything’ is sublimely wonderful and exciting to read – and a wonderful blend of the two genres.

    However, with literature, I’ve turned to Audible – going back to my childhood, it’s wonderful having stories read to me again. Every night, I plug in the iPod, rest my weary eyes and drift into a world of fantasy. I can listen to anything from science fiction – I’m listening to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series at the moment. to classic literature – recently Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby to mention but a few.

    Best of both worlds…

  11. avatar
    Tracy Armstrong permalink
    October 21, 2013

    Hi Jabiz, I also wish I had the tenacity that you have when it comes to reading. I really thought that I was an avid reader until I met you. I have always heard that reading makes one a better writer. However, I read strictly for pleasure. I try my best to stay away from the hard and boring stuff. I guess I can’t really answer any of your questions because I am not a teacher yet. I was really looking for answers on how can I get my students to not only read but to enjoy reading as well, especially if the book is long and boring. I must say that you did give me an idea when you told us about how the student teacher got your attention. I am thinking of presenting reading books as a private book club. I think that this will allow the students to be engaged while expounding on the different books that they are assigned to read. Thank you for this blog. It was very helpful.

    Tracy

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