Reading can be a daunting challenge. As someone who loves to read, there have been many books that I have come across where I can feel my eyes glazing over as I try to decipher the meaning of the text. I vividly remember this occurring for the first time when I was in high school in my AP English class when we were assigned to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (ironically, for this class I had to read Mortimer Adler’s other book, How to Read Literature like a Professor).
Now, I had read difficult books before, but nothing had prepared me for this drudgery. I remember trying to parse through the old language that seemed to be as foreign as Greek at times, feeling like I would have better luck if it were Greek! My eyes would cross, I could feel myself dozing off, and the next thing I knew it was the due date for the exam and I had barely made it through a quarter of the book. Praise be to the mighty Spark Notes for its omniscience and ability to help struggling students pass high school English!
This had a profound impact on me and from that moment on, I decided that I no longer enjoyed reading. What was once a joy and a pastime was now a chore (and a bore). When people would ask me if I was reading anything, I would boldly tell them, “Not a chance! Nathaniel Hawthorne destroyed any love of reading that I once had.” For all intents and purposes, I embroidered a metaphorical scarlet letter on my chest.
On reflection, a big part of the reason I had such difficulty with The Scarlet Letter was that I had not been taught how to read for understanding. I had grown accustomed to reading for information. I could not appreciate the intricacy of theme or literary devices because I did not know how to look for them (sure I had a basic knowledge of what they were, but no real idea of what they looked like). It would not be until my senior year of high school that our teacher would teach us a method of reading a book intelligently (much to my high school self’s dismay since it required much more work than I wanted to put into it). But this methodology opened a up a new world of understanding in the world of literature and, what’s more, it restored a joy in reading.
It’s a travesty that we do not know how to read because there is so much we miss in literature.
What I appreciate about Adler’s book is that it acknowledges that different books require different modes of reading. One should not read a history book in the same way as one reads poetry, or Plumbing for Dummies the way one would read To Kill a Mockingbird. Different genres require different skillsets for reading effectively. To try and create a “one size fits all” mentality for reading is to do a disservice to not just the book, but the author as well.
An area this comes up most frequently is in the interpretation of Scripture. Adler’s methodologies can be applied to the different genres found within the Bible. Should one interpret the Psalms as one would interpret the Gospel of Matthew? Or should one interpret the narrative passages of Samuel and Kings with with the imagery of Revelation? We need to be aware of how we approach various genres if we are to aptly interpret them in a way consistent with the text.
There is a level of discernment that goes into reading books, particularly in whether or not they are actually worth reading and how fast one should actually read them. Adler writes, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension” (42). Should one read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as fast as one should read Twilight? I would imagine that a quick read without much deep thought into the latter would suffice while a more careful reading of the former would be more beneficial.
Adler also poses four questions a reader should ask that I find beneficial to any sort of reading (pp 46-47):
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true, in whole or part?
- What of it?
When we look at these questions, we find that these are active questions that allow us to not only be engaged with the reading, but to help us discern why we read a book. If we read a history book for the purpose of discerning how to fix a faucet, we may not get the answers we’re looking for. When we know an author’s purpose in writing a book, it opens a window to the motivation behind it and what they are trying to communicate.
Since I learned to read a book well, it’s almost become a game to discern the meaning of a book (even the “not so serious” books I read). I would argue that every book has some message it wants to portray (though not every book has the same depth of meaning). Unlocking the hidden secrets of a text and then cross examining it with other books gives a level of satisfaction that I find hard to get anywhere else. What I find interesting is how oftentimes I will read an academic book regarding some level of philosophy or ideology and then will find it interwoven into one of the fantasy books that I read.
My ability to read and appreciate literature has changed immensely since my junior year AP English class. Maybe it’s time that I give The Scarlet Letter another chance.