Reading is a complicated activity. Sometimes we do it for edification, other times for pleasure, sometimes simply to fulfill an assignment. Sometimes a combination of all three. Some of us mark up our books; others long for the pristine unmarked pages of a brand new edition. Some of us take pride in our personal libraries and are perpetual collectors, while others among us haunt public libraries until the locals know us by name. Some of us read quickly and move from book to book rapidly, while others go slow and steady. Some of us read digital books, while others savor the sensory details of the printed page. Some of us have been lifetime readers, while others are new to the habit. Whatever your particular case may be, reading is probably one of the most important parts of your life and this means the oft-lingering question is this: what makes a good reader? So, in keeping with the spirit of our habits series I asked a few of my CiRCE-world friends to help answer that question. Here’s what they said.
David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility, recipient of the 2002 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize
“Habit” is the key word. There are some things a man should do every day: pray, repent, eat, sleep, hug his children and kiss his wife and tell them he loves them, work with his mind and back, and read. My typical day begins, as did my father’s, with a pot of coffee, the day’s Prologue and Lexionary readings. If there are no chores to perform on the farm or ranch (more likely in winter than in summer), I spend the afternoon in my library reading. At night, I take a book to bed. I cannot fall asleep without reading, and the test of the book is how late into the night it keeps me awake. I’m a slow reader, without apology, and one who looks up frequently from the page.
Andrew Kern, president of the CiRCE Institute
A reader reads well when he pays attention to what he reads. That requires that he seeks answers to his own questions, but not in the sense of forcing the book to give him what he wants. Rather, those questions are drawn from the text itself. Think of it this way: I would ask my brother questions I think he might be able to answer, but many of those questions could not be answered by my grandmother. To be mad at her or to not pay attention to her because of that would be silly. I have to let gramma be gramma and brother be brother. Just so, I will not force a book to tell me something it can’t tell me. But I will ask it the questions it wants to answer. If I do, I’ll be a good reader.
Adam Andrews, Director of the Center for Lit
Since I’m not a very good reader myself, this one is easy: good readers don’t read like me. I tend to see a book as a reading assignment that will be finished when I reach the last page. My reading life tends to look like a series of discrete accomplishments, or worse, a list of To-Do’s. As a result, I look at each book as a drop in the bucket compared to all the others I still need to read. There’s no finishing this task, so a task-oriented reader is always in the process of failing. This makes it almost impossible to start a new book when I have completed one. Who wants to be reminded that he will never finish, no matter how long he works?
The good readers that I know have a different view. Books are not assignments for them, and finishing is never their primary goal. They read for the pleasure, stimulation, and comfort of reading, and since you get these things throughout the reading process, not just at the end, they always succeed. They rarely count the books they have completed, or mark their progress in any systematic way. They take notes so they can remember the experience, but this activity is secondary to the experience itself. And most importantly, they tend to start new books right away, since each one is a new opportunity for pleasure, stimulation, and comfort.
I wish I were a reader like that. I would certainly read more, and be the better for it.
Brian Phillips, Host of The Commons podcast, author of the CiRCE literature guides
One habit of a good reader is being willing to take an author on his own terms. When we read a book, we should give the author the benefit of the doubt, rather than reading only with the intent of critiquing all we dislike about the book, the author, or the ideas presented.
That is not to say books cannot be criticized, but it should only come after we give it a fair hearing. I think Solomon’s words from Proverbs 18:13 are helpful here: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Angelina Stanford, co-host of the Close Reads podcast, literature teacher at angelinastanford.com
All too often Christian readers think it their duty to wage war against books. We put on our armor in expectation of being attacked. We are on guard against whatever the author might be trying to say. But, good reading requires surrender. We must lay down our swords and fully enter into the book—with open minds and open hearts. It’s not that we abandon discernment or our duty to take every thought captive. Rather, we cannot judge a book before we have fully experienced it. If we are looking for a fight as we read, we will never really understand the book. As CS Lewis reminds us in An Experiment in Criticism, “No poem will give up its secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken it. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything. The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good.” Good readers take that risk.
Matt Bianco, Head Mentor in the CiRCE Apprenticeship
A great number of things are the marks of a good reader, but chief among those—and often the most overlooked—is the willingness to re-read books. A good reader is not the person who can read through books the fastest. A good reader is not the one who can read many books simultaneously. A good reader is not the one who can see the “deepest” stuff or tell you the plot line. A good reader is one who knows that in order to read well, he or she must read the book again. And again. And maybe again. Perhaps my point would be made clearer by allowing CS Lewis to say it in his words: “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”
Tim McIntosh, former Provost of Gutenberg College, co-host of the Close Reads podcast
Good readers and bad readers are separated by habits of positioning:
- A bad reader positions himself above a good book.
- A bad reader positions himself below a bad book.
- A good reader positions himself above a bad book.
- A good reader positions himself below a good book.
David Kern, co-host of the Close Reads podcast, editor of Forma
A good reader reads actively. I don’t just mean that a good reader reads with pen (or highlighter) in hand, although that is true. I also mean that a good reader reads with imagination. Sure, this means imagining the world of the book in the mind, seeing the people and places the author presents. But, more importantly, it means that a good reader pursues the poetic essence of the work, not as something to consume or use or check off a list, but as a means to seeing the world we live in. That is, a good reader pays attention to and, indeed, seeks out the poetic imagination that the book provides and the vision of existence that it offers. Another way of saying this is that a good reader pays attention to the logos of a book and what it means.