Reading Strategically

I am a strategic reader.  It is the scandal of my book group.  Last month, my grandson, who is headed off to college, drew back from me when I described what I meant by that term and said something on the order of, “Oh…that’s just wrong.”  Sorry if I misquoted you, Karl.

reading 2I began as a strategic reader for the very best of reasons. I didn’t have any choice.  The reading schedule in grad school was brutal during my summer at Miami (Ohio) and I survived it by adopting a very simple plan.  I begin with the question, “How well do I need to read this?”  I defined “well” as “what will I need to know to stay out of trouble?”  Then I would divide the number of pages required by the number of minutes available and get to work.

I use a version of that same process even now.  One of the ways I manage my life these days is to trade book recommendations with friends and then, later on, sit down to talk with them about the book.  The motives are entirely different from grad school, but the process is pretty much the same.  I have a friend who said last week, “Oh…you’ve got to read this.”  When I started the book, I realized very soon that, as much as I valued the friend, I wasn’t going to value the book all that much.

So here’s what I did.  I read the first chapter.  Then I scanned quickly through the rest of the book to get a sense of what it had to offer to a “strategic reader.”  Then I went back and read everything that bore on that particular theme.  It was enjoyable.  It was efficient.  And now I am looking forward to sitting down with my friend and listening to what he liked about it and telling him what I liked.[1]

One of the good things about being in a book group is that you read books you would notreading 1 have chosen yourself.  But sometimes there is very little relationship between what the book wants to do and what you want to do.  (That brings up the author’s intention question, to which we will return.)  I don’t feel I owe the author anything, but I do owe the book group.  All of us read things that matter a lot more to someone else and the only respectable thing to do is to give yourself to that book as a way of honoring the group and all the friendships it holds in place.

I have an example in mind.  We are currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, a study of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the era of World War II.  I started into the book with high hopes because I like Goodwin and immediately got bogged down.  TMI.  Way too much!  I know she has a researcher—many, probably, but one of them appears on the dust jacket with the author—but there are lots of things about Eleanor’s relationship with her father or Franklin’s with his mother, that I really don’t want to know.  Yet.

On the other hand, I do know a little about World War II, particularly about the diplomatic debates and the military preparations, and it is amazing how satisfying it is to learn a little more about something you already know something about.

So I am not “reading,” No Ordinary Time; I am “reading for.”  I am reading No Ordinary Time for the diplomatic debates and the military preparations.  That interest gives me a focus and I read all that material and some additional material on each side of it.  I learned some interesting things about how Winston Churchill saw the war and how Eleanor Roosevelt saw the war.  When I go back to this book again, probably in a year or so, that relationship will be part of the focus and I will read “some additional material,” perhaps about Franklin’s relationship with the collection of very attentive and competent women with whom he surrounded himself.

readubg 3Assuming I read this book several times over the next ten years, which is more likely than not, I will take as the focus of my reading more and more of what Goodwin has to offer.  I will not go very far from my own interest, but as my interest expands, I don’t have to go very far to be in new territory.  And this “new territory” is the very place I looked at originally and said, “TMI.  Way too much!”

One more example, then I’ll try to give a serious answer to my critics, prominent among whom is my librarian wife, Bette.  I recently read a novel called Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of the French Countryside, by Martin Walker.[2]  I read the first part: I got the feel of the town, I met Bruno, I found the event that sets the plot in motion.  Then I read the last part to see how everything turned out.  Then I went back to the place where I had stopped my page by page reading—this is where the murder is reported—and started reading.

I am a Step B reader.  It’s what I like best.  A is the setup; C is the culmination—or, since it’s a French story, the dénouement.  Then comes the B part.  I watch new characters arise, new events slide into the necessary path of the narrative.  I see mHarper Lee Smokesuch more than I would otherwise, since I know where the narrative is going, and I enjoy it much more because I am not reading for C.  I know C.  I am enjoying the whole range of B, every part.  It’s wonderful.

Now about the author’s intention.  This is Harper Lee, by the way, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and recently, of Go Set a Watchman.  Modern literary theory holds that we can’t really know what it is and furthermore, that there is no reason to prefer the author’s intentions to our own.  But modern literary theory baffles me.  My reasons are much easier to hate.  I like to read books in a way that lowers the cost to me and that raises the enjoyment I receive from reading them.[3]

That seems so sensible to me.  I think I would continue to do it even if it did not scandalize my friends.

[1] And I am not resenting him for dragging me through this long and boring book.
[2] Bette and I are going on a bike and barge tour of France in September and reading murder mysteries is my favorite way of learning about the place we are going.
[3] I read technical scientific articles according to the same principle, but using different markers.  I don’t look for the murder, in other words.  I go to the statistical device I can understand best and to the discussion that I can apply most broadly.  Then I quit.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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