Before I go, I have something to say

How to Read a Book

If anybody knows how to read a book, it should be a librarian, right? You’d think I’d be an expert. I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody has walked into whichever library I’m working at and said, “Have you read all these books?” or, more confidently, “I’ll bet you’ve read all these!”

Hardly. While it’s the librarian’s job to choose the books, to budget for and order and process and check out the books to other people, we certainly do not have the time or – let’s be honest here – the inclination to read every book in our collections. When I worked at public libraries, I can assure you that the only time I went near the car repair manuals was to fetch one for a member of the public. As a college librarian, I let whole swaths of subjects go unbrowsed, from math to chemistry to computer science.

Let me loose in the literature section, though, and that’s another story. I even taught myself to love mysteries, as long as they’re set in Venice. But librarians only read book reviews at work. And a book review is to a book what a menu is to a meal.

A long time ago, Mortimer Adler wrote a book called How to Read a Book. I bought it and had every intention of reading it, assuming it would greatly enhance my appreciation of every book I encountered henceforth. This book would, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “explain the various levels of reading and how to achieve them, from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading, to how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, and criticize.” I’m an English major! I should have eaten this stuff up!

Only here’s the thing. I could not get myself to read it. This is, I know, the very definition of irony. I guess I needed the Cliff notes, or maybe another book called How to Read How to Read a Book. So I gave it away, unread.

That doesn’t mean I stopped reading – and collecting – books. I’ve even been in three book clubs. Book clubs can guide you to books you would have otherwise shunned. Back when I was still in a club, I might have benefitted from Adler’s book, because there were some selections I had a terrible time getting into. There I would be, sitting on the sofa with the new book on my lap, brow furrowed, headache coming on, complaining to my husband, “I don’t think I can read this.”

And he would smile and remark, “You always say that.” Which, I finally learned, was true. Once I’ve read one book – gotten the settings firmly in my head, learned the motivations of the characters, wondered with genuine interest where the plot would take them next – I find it very hard to wrench myself away from that book’s world and plunge into another. No matter how compelling the first line (“Call me Ishmael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York”), I have so much trouble moving into this all-new world, no matter how similar it might be to mine. Often, it is not similar at all. Whether it’s a whale hunt far off at sea, or a tumultuous story of the French revolution, or the nervous breakdown of a great American poet, I’m forced to leave behind the cozy cottage by the shore in my last-read book and paint a whole new picture in my head.

Almost without fail, though, I manage to move into that new book. My husband finds me the next night on the sofa again, encircled by the yellow reading light, intent on chapter three or four, and thinks to himself, no doubt, “I knew it.”

So how should you read a book? Here are my suggestions, or rather, my way of doing it. Whether any of this will help you get into your next book is anyone’s guess. I’m not writing a book about it, that’s for sure.

1. Let the book choose you. Whether it’s because you love the title and the feel of the pages and the heft of the volume in your hands, I think you can judge a book by its cover, especially if the back is scattered with praise by some of your favorite writers.
2. Accept a highly recommended book from a friend. Someone recently thrust Jon Hassler’s first novel into my hands, and now I can’t get enough of him.
3. Paint that picture. If you can’t “see” that house on the strand, substitute your Aunt Ethel’s cabin. Hey, it’s worked for me.
4. Give it a chance. I would have missed out on some amazing stories had I given up when I wanted to (three pages in). Persevere, at least past chapter two.
5. Don’t take notes. You’re not in English 101 anymore. If you come across a passage you just have to share with a friend, by all means mark it, but do it out of joy, not duty.
6. Pay attention to all the characters. You never know when the mousy waitress in chapter six is going to turn into the protagonist’s true love in chapter ten.
7. When you finish, wait awhile before you move on to your next book. At least a day.

That’s all. Just surrender yourself to the book, and chances are, it will enchant you. If not, move on. You know what the t-shirt says: So many books, so little time.


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