Eight Notes on the Art of Reading

I had occasion to write down some reflections on the art of reading for a friend. Here are some selections:

The really big pieces of advice for readers are the same as for writers:

  1. Finish things.
  2. Figure out your process and stick to it.

Everything else is subordinate to those.

Accept reading into your life as a discipline that you will mostly practice in the interstices of your schedule, when other people are doing nothing. Most of my reading, prayer, and martial arts practice happens this way. It is amazing what you can get done when you attend to the “dead spaces” in your life, and put them to work for you over a long period of time. For example, I recently finished a book on spiritual direction. I read the whole thing on the toilet using the Kindle app on my phone. Took me two and a half weeks.

Pre-read. Get a sense for what’s in your “to-read” pile so you know what to pick up next. Flip through the book, skim a few pages here and there, just to learn what kind of book it is. Does it have short chapters or long ones? Are there section breaks? Books that break up into smaller chunks go into my toilet reading pile. Books that are going to take extended study mostly get saved for weekends.

Re-read. Don’t be afraid to go back and read a paragraph again, or a chapter. Or a whole book, for that matter. In fact, the whole-book re-read is often the most effective for comprehension. It’s easier to grasp the finer points after you have a rough idea where the whole thing is going.

If you drive places, use audiobooks and lectures. Even if you only live 10 minutes from work, that’s an hour and 40 minutes a week, just on your commute. You can finish a good-sized book in a few weeks that way — and if you use the rest of your drive time, it goes even faster. I use audiobooks while I’m cooking, too — my hands are busy, but it’s not complicated work, so I can listen well. I have an acquaintance who listens to audiobooks during his workouts. I can’t do that; listening takes up too much of my attention, and I’m prone to hurting myself when I get distracted during a workout. Figure out what works for you.

Read at night, before going to bed. I usually reserve that slot for popular novels or poetry, although I’ve done some heavy reading that way too. I have learned the hard way to stay away from Lee Childs at night — I wind up awake at 2 in the morning, telling myself, “It’s only another 75 pages to the end.”

One book or several? There are two schools of thought on reading in parallel. The single-book school says that your concentration is better if you focus all your reading time on a single book until you finish it. The other maintains that it’s more fun to read a few books in parallel. In case you haven’t caught it yet, I’m definitely in the latter school, but find what works for you.

Speed reading. Stanley D. Frank wrote a book about the Evelyn Wood speed reading method. I don’t do it the way they teach you to, but working through their exercises was very helpful to me.

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