The Art of Reading

The Teaching Company puts out many college level lecture series called The Great Courses. Over the last decade or more I’ve collected quite an exaltation of these larks (in the best sense of the word) and have enjoyed most of them immensely – from CS Lewis, to Modernism, to The Fundatmentals of Music, to The Philosophy of Science, to The History of Mathematics – and so on.

It’s really a priceless resource, and most of their materials are high content quality as well as high production quality.

They sent me another sale catalogue yesterday, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to open it, especially when I saw, featured on the cover, a program I had not noticed before: The Art of Reading. So I opened it to see how it merited front-cover space.

It looks good. For one thing, it respects the reading process as a skill one never entirely masters. There is always something new. Also, it provides a number of different objects for the reader’s attention, most of which should have been learned by high school, but some of which could not have been.

The sequence makes sense, moving from the specific elements to  formal elements and then providing some samples at the end.

The main problem I have with it is not superable, and that is that it is a series of lectures, which makes it necessarily analytical. Reading is an art and can only be learned synthetically, dynamically, synergistically.

A person who is already a good reader would find this series, I imagine, invaluable. It would provide him with new tools by which to access the text. But those tools would be presented in an analytical mode.

In this day and age, many people need more dynamic tools, literally instruments that can show them how to pay better attention to what they are reading. If those are included in this set, they are skillfully woven into the individual lectures.

Let me hastily add that I would not be surprised if they were. In the introduction, under a section called The Artful Reader’s Toolbox, we read three suggestions for “artful reading:”

  1. Holding an initial reading session
  2. Pre-reading
  3. Constantly asking questions

While I don’t think the term for number 2 is valid because it suggests a narrowness to the art of reading that I don’t accept, I love the third and I think the first is a smart suggestion to. In fact, I think the second is a smart suggestion as well, but I don’t like the term used to describe it.

My point is that he probaby weaves these suggestions through the lectures, so my earlier request is probably answered.

Literature teachers should secure this set this for professional purposes, but anybody who loves or wants to love reading should read it for its real purpose: to learn how to read better.

If you are a professional teacher of literature, please be careful of two things. One, teaching professionally, and two, teaching subjectively.

By professionally, I mean teaching literature so your students can do silly, useless things like “get through the materials,” or silly, harmful things like worry about AP tests and other godless, standardized acts of academic tyranny. Students, especially those delicate souled high school students, should read books so they can experience the encounter with a genius who sings to their souls, not so they can do well on a test.

Maybe that’s why I never lost my taste for literature. I never let school get in the way of my education. I never let the fact that we were reading books for a class interfere with my own determination to like or dislike books that spoke to me or didn’t.

On the other hand, students need to learn how to read and that requires skilled reading coaches. It’s not, ultimately, about how you feel about a book that matters. What matters is whether you have the intellectual wherewithal to enter the world of the author. There is no getting around it – you have to be trained to like good literature every bit as much as you have to be trained to like good music or good games. It’s a training in perception.

When my wife watches basketball she simply cannot see greatness. It goes right past her. She doesn’t perceive it because she has never been taught how.

In professional sports there is no egalitarianism. That is why some athletes are so great. The same is true in writing. If you want your students to appreciate greatness, then you need to teach them what makes a writer great.

Slowly.

Let me conclude with some wise words from my reading mentor, Jack Lewis:

One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and univerities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious. When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind. The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology–like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers. The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forebears applied to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness. The doctrine of I.A. Richards in which the correct reading of good poetry has  a veritable therapeutic value confirms him in this attitude.

CS Lewis An Experiment in Criticism

I do recommend this program, though I have not yet used it, but with the universal caution: never teach something the same year you learned it.

www.teach12.com

(No, I don’t have any relationship with The Teaching Company, except as customer)

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3 Responses

  1. This reminds me, and I figure I’ll throw this question out here as you’re as likely as anyone to have advice on it, especially given what you’ve said about being trained to appreciate things… Any idea how one might go about training themselves and their children to appreciate good art? The only thing I’ve been able to appreciate is that I’m personally incapable of creating something like that which the artist’s made. But that’s where it stops.

    (I know, this isn’t what you were writing about but thought I’d risk it. :] )

    Thanks for all your writings!
    Maria :]

  2. David,

    Fantastic. I love what I’ve read of Billy Collins’ stuff and this shows why. Good sense of humor, but he gets it.

    ajk

  3. Andrew,
    I have the course, and I must say I absolutely love it. I have absorbed many of the ideas and have applied them to my own teaching of literature.
    Students need to be trained in the art of reading and literary perception– without killing the spirit of the activity. It is a fine line. It should not be scientific. It should not be dissection. It should not be consumption.
    I usually share this poem with my students at the beginning of the year. It captures this idea well–
    “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into the poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

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