A reading lesson [Archives:2006/1008/Education]

December 18 2006

Dr. P.A.Abraham
Professor of English
Taiz University
[email protected]

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested : that is some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

)Francis Bacon

Reading and writing are the two sides of the same coin. It is to writing what hearing is to speaking. Sometimes we don't hear what people are really speaking about. This is applicable to reading as well. You must remember that the book is not about yours and you are reading it in order to get something out of it. According to Canadian Novelist Robertson Davis, one must read selectively, listen to the inner music of the writer's voice and reread books that give you pleasure. I believe that one has to read a book more slowly than some modern teachers recommend. The reason is that the reader is trying to find out what the book has to say. I am sure that you have no intention to finish the book somehow or the other. If you don't like the book, do not strain unnecessarily. Put it aside and read something that interests you. But if you like the book, take your own time, do not rush at it. Read it at the pace at which you can pronounce and hear every word in your head. In other words, one has to read eloquently. You are reading for pleasure and incidentally, it may bring information and enlightenment, but if it doesn't bring pleasure, you should ask yourself why you are reading it.

People who teach Reading are against what they call “verbalizing”. According to them if you verbalize, you lose time. But you are not reading to save time. You are reading for pleasure and understanding. During the Middle Ages people used to read aloud and the story of a scholar who had to discontinue his studies because he had a soar throat, is a well known one. In fact verbalizing is one of the best critical procedures especially while reading poetry. While teaching poetry I always ask the students to read/recite it loudly. Read aloud so that you can hear what is read with the inner eye, and it is an important critical method for good reading practice. Try to read a passage loudly from a book that you find it difficult to understand. There is every possibility that you will start understanding the passage soon!

So, in order to read well, first of all you need to derive pleasure in what you read. Secondly we need an open and flexible mind. You see, we can't take words at face value. We must see them contextually in order to make sense. And this context is ever changing. It is generated by the words of a given text, where the text itself is generated by the writer who will generate contexts which a conscious reader can envisage. A good reader has to see all that in a text.

The problem is there is always some sort of discrepancy between what a text says and what it means. So, the reader has to figure out what a text really means on the basis of what he reads. In other words, a reader often has to construe the meaning on the basis of various clues given in the text. For example, consider the following two different expressions: “They kicked him upstairs” and “They put him out of pasture”. Though different, there is something similar here and the similarity is that both these expressions could mean “they forced him into early retirement.” Again, observe the following contradictory expressions in English language (Oxymoron), “act naturally” and “found missing”. To “act naturally” actually means to act in such a way as to seem not to be acting at all. And it is intelligible to say, that while looking for something, we came to the conclusion that something was missing. The point is that this so-called oxymoron makes sense provided we don't read them with simple-minded literalness.

Hermeneutical philosophy says that in order to understand the whole you must know the parts, but in order to understand the parts, you must first understand the whole. It appears that according to hermeneutical circle, real understanding of a text is impossible. Probably the way to get out of this circle is to reach that point in reading a text where the reader can see how the given parts constitute a certain whole and not some other. In other words we are out of this dilemma when we see that the parts and the whole which they constitute converge into a perfect harmony, a harmonious unit.

“You can't see the forest for the trees”. This saying echoes the hermeneutical circle as well as the whole idea that though the evidence for a given interpretation is in the text, it is the text itself that needs interpreting in the first place. The idea is to see the “forest” because of and not in spite of the “trees”.

Reading then is an active enterprise (as is misreading of course!). The good reader pays attention to every aspect of a text and does not jump into conclusions prematurely. The good reader allows the text to suggest the context within which it is to be understood. The bad reader either ignores the context or changes it. The good reader implicitly recognizes the fact that an interpretation is not something superimposed on a given text, but something suggested by it.

Many readers think that once you have read a book, it has been read for ever. For example, you have read Shakespeare's “Othello” when you were an undergraduate. You must read it again when you are 25, 50, 56, 60, 70. When you read it again and again you derive more and more insight about the play. Perhaps you may not read every page at these later years, but you should really take another look at a great book, in order to find out how great it is, or how great it has remained to you. Great writers and artists deserve this kind of careful consideration. The more you read a great book the more you derive great pleasure and insight.

And I believe that you must read some rubbish also because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual “indigestion”. How can you know that a mountain peak is glorious unless you have scrambled through dirty valley? Similarly while reading great books, read also some current books, periodicals, news papers etc. They will help you to take the measure of the age in which you live. Remember that our aim is not to become immensely widely read (If you do it, it is fine) not to become an expert reader, but to have read deeply with pleasure and understanding and to have invited a few masterpieces into your life.