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How to Read

I have a lot of respect for the power of habit. I think the brain — well, the whole damn sack of meat, really — is an astonishingly efficient system, one that identifies habits and streamlines things so you get better at doing the things you do most often.  In some ways, this is awesome: that’s why practicing your scales every day teaches your fingers to be faster and you become a better muso, delighting young and old with your Hendrix-esque harp solos. In other ways, it can be sucky: it’s one of the reasons we become short-sighted as we age; the eyes are giving up on their long-distance-looking because you don’t use it nearly as much as up-close or mid-range-looking (I’m not a doctor: this could be completely untrue). Why bother keeping that skill if you never use it? But I think habits are at their most powerful in the grey mush under your hat. Habits of thought, assumptions, and habits of mental practice are all robust things.

Take reading. Three examples of habits in reading:

Anyone who has spent feverish hours racing through a book for an exam or essay — mining for quotes, gorging your short-term memory on major themes, protagonists, plot devices and metaphors in setting — knows there are different ways of reading. Ah, the feeling of holding it all in short-term memory like a drug mule holding heroin balloons in the stomach for prompt regurgitation. Maybe not the best way to cultivate an appreciation of some of the nuances of modern European fiction, but it passes the exam. But there’s a risk of habit: you find that when you’ve got time for some recreational reading, you apply the same practices. Skimming, making mental bookmarks of the major plot points and characters, but disregarding the peripheral characters, ignoring some of the subtler aspects of dialogue, and coming away with something of a caricature of the real book.

While studying for my Masters, nearly all the reading I was doing was articles, essays and single chapters. Very little extended reading (I think the only novel I read over the course of my Masters was The Princess Bride, and I’d already read it). By the time I got to the end of those studies, I felt like a novel was a huge undertaking: I’d formed the habit of reading only chomp-sized, digestible-within-an-hour pieces. It took a while to work my way back up to book-length texts. (I was shocked to find that a 5,000-6,000 word article in The New Yorker, while completely gripping, required lots of hydration breaks and took me nearly a whole morning.) I had fallen out of the habit of sustaining focus and interest over a long reading period.

I edit legislation for a living, which involves another specific type of reading: the way I read legislation when I’m editing it is vastly different to the way I read a novel or a blog.  When I’m editing, I’m looking for errors; I’m looking at sentence structure, order of words, formatting, punctuation, etc. Additionally, I don’t have a legal background, so sometimes the topic of the legislation doesn’t hold my interest and I don’t take in meaning as well as I otherwise would. These two factors mean that I’ve developed a habit of reading in such a way that part of my mind can, to a limited extent, wander off and do its own thing while the other parts are skimming text and superficially absorbing it. I hadn’t realised how pervasive this habit had become until I caught myself doing it while reading in bed. Reading in bed! A book I genuinely wanted to absorb and learn from and drink in, and only 1/5th of my brain was bothering to show up for work!  The other 4/5ths were thinking about groceries, singing some tunes that had gotten stuck in there, asking dumb questions and generally putzing about pointlessly.

Three habits of reading, each carefully refined by circumstance. My brain had been all “right, so this is what we do all the time now, so this is what I’ll get good at!”.  Clever little brain. Have a treat.  No, not on the…oh, never mind, I’ll clean it up later.

While these three habits were useful — they wouldn’t have developed if I hadn’t needed them at the time — other reading habits deteriorated: picking up a novel put aside for a few days, it was hard to remember what happened previously and why the characters were in the situation they were in. The third habit — skimming and not concentrating — is the most powerful one at the moment, and so the one I want most to push aside. Still, awareness is the first step to correction. Now I know I do it, I notice when I’m doing it and pull myself back into line. If I get to a point in a book and think “when did she become El Presidente?” or “who was that guy again and why is he holding a donkey’s head?” it’s time to flip back and retry those couple of pages.

All three of these habits formed out of circumstance, but I don’t want them anymore. My favourite reading habit is sustained reading, where I absorb the text, learn about people, ideas and events (fictitious or real), and maybe even grow a little as a result. This is the habit I want to preserve: happily, the best way to sustain it is to keep doing it.  That’s something I can get behind. I’m a greedy reader (a greader!) and there are so many things I want to read, but if I’m skimming, not concentrating, or data-mining, I’m kidding myself. I’m not listening to what the book’s got to say, and when I get to the end of the book, all I’ve got is a deceptive sense of conclusion. Reading is a lot like listening, I think: people assume they’re good at it because they do it all the time, but most people aren’t doing it at all. They’re just looking at words.

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