Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Activity of Reading

One of my books for the From the Stacks Challenge is The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer which I had originally purchased about two years ago. I had bought it on the strength of the discussion of *how* one should read; Bauer outlines a set of steps that an adult might follow in order to maximize the value of reading literature, autobiography, history, drama and poetry. Each form has its own demands and therefore a discerning reader will want to adapt his or her reading style and mental thought processes in order to ensure the likelihood of engaging fully with the work. Bear in mind that Bauer's reputation in the public community is based on a book she co-authored with her mother for those interested in home schooling their children (see The Well Trained Mind). This book is an offshoot of that text, aimed at helping adults, who may find themselves at a disadvantage in trying to teach their children, to improve their own skills in reading analytically. I don't need to homeschool my children (my two have made it into college) but Bauer's book is a detailed outline of how to gain the most benefit from reading beyond superficial distraction. I don't necessarily employ all of her recommended techniques, but there is enough overlap between my own habits and her process, that I don't feel I'm missing any essential step.

Her program requires scheduling and committing to an undisturbed segment of time for reading each week. She specifically recommends to her audience that they begin with four segments of thirty minutes each over the course of a seven-day week. Personally, I can read in 20 minute chunks on the train while I commute, but retention is often spotty. If I really want to extract something from my reading, I prefer to do it mid-day ideally in an undisturbed 90-minute session. Those sessions can only happen on a weekend, and many weekends it would be a challenge.

Her recommendation of taking notes is something I do follow, although I can't bring myself to write in a book. My mother raised me to take care of my things and she taught me that you don't write in a book. That might have been largely because we tended to rely on library books growing up, but I don't think she saw writing in books as anything other than damaging or defacing a text. Formal library training just reinforced the idea. I do take notes but tend to scribble on index cards or on small notepad sheets that you can stick inside a front or back cover. The difficulty in doing this task on the train is that jostling little sheets of paper while balancing a book on my knee in a moving train can be somewhat disruptive to the thought process necessary to thoughtful retention. Only in the past eighteen months have I indulged in the extravagance of Moleskine notebooks for ordinary note-taking. Post it notes and flags are good, but I am well-aware that the chemical make-up of the adhesive can hasten acidification of the paper page. There is a certain guilt associated with using them. For work-related articles, I generally use a yellow highlighter on pages that I've printed off from the Web.

The real question that I'm asking myself while reading The Well Educated Mind is when does someone need to be able to read at this level of depth, if one isn't reading for purposes of education? Why do we stop engaging at this level with the content we read once we get out in the so-called real world? Is the lack of time really the reason? These are rhetorical questions to a certain extent, but feel free to chime in.