I took a class in college called “Readers, Writers, and Books”, mainly because my favorite professor was teaching it and partly because I thought it sounded straightforward enough. As a Literature major, I had been taking handfuls of intensive theory classes. I was hoping for a bit of an easier time. Of course, I should have known better than to judge a class by its title.
I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but the primary goal of the class was to look at books within books where the book becomes a character of its own, theories behind reading, and the role of a reader in relation to a text. One of the most standout lessons I learned in my entire college experience came out of this course. My professor would call on people and ask if that person had actually read the assigned reading before they could answer his book-related question, and he wanted us to be honest. One day he called on a classmate of mine who decided to fess up that no, in fact, he had not read the book. The professor paused for a minute, appearing deep in thought, and then said,
“I’m glad you didn’t read it. If you had wanted to read it, you would have. No one should ever read when they aren’t in the mindset to do so. Reading is work. Reading is exercise for the mind. Reading is an active, engaging experience that you need to participate in, rather than be passive with. Give a book your full attention, or put it down (or don’t pick it up at all).”
He followed that up by pointing out that perhaps the student had selected the wrong major if he didn’t prefer to read.
I had never thought of reading as work or a truly involved experience before. Reading and reading comprehension always came easily to me, and it was something I enjoyed. But after that class, I took a step back and realized my professor was right on point. To really get at a text and all it has to offer, you have to work at it. You can’t take any part of the text for granted. Skimming books can be dangerous – you can miss out on all that the book has to offer. And if all you want is a high-level understanding, this is fine. But for someone like me, who hoped (and still hopes) to make books and writing and reading into a career someday, taking it easy when reading wasn’t going to cut it.
And because reading itself is an experience, reading a great book should definitely leave the reader feeling something more. When I’m 100% engaged in a text, I can feel myself right alongside (or within) the characters. I feel their feelings. I sense their senses. And when the book is done, or when I’m done reading for the day, I feel worn out. As William Clark Styron, Jr. (the author of Sophie’s Choice) noted, “You live several lives while reading.” Proper, dedicated reading can be exhausting.
The next time you pick up a book, pay attention to the level of effort you put into the reading and what you get out of the experience. What books have you read that left you reeling once you finish the last page? For me, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner required my complete engagement and the payoff was worth it. Share your experiences in the comments.