Reading Strategies for the Next Generation

Is there a right way to read a story? The first—the very first—discussion of a topic of general interest between the Hesses and the Jaenisches concerned that question. The Hesses are Bette and me. The Jaenisches are Bette’s daughter Melisa, her son-in-law Thomas, and all three of their children: Konrad, age 9, and the twins Liliana and Lara, age 8.

Every one of us agreed that the answer was Yes. From there we took different paths. This essay is about the different paths taken at the time and also about a few later reconsiderations.

We were all surprised that the teams, if it is fair to use the word “team” to refer to several continually changing coalitions, divided along gender lines. Who would have thought it?

“They”—IMG_1167.jpgBette, her daughter Melisa, and her granddaughters Liliana and Lara [it’s Lara in the picture]—took the view, initially, that the best way to go about reading a novel was to start at the beginning and move through to the end. They granted that sometimes a book starts slowly and you have to exercise some discipline to keep reading until it starts getting interesting, but you will be rewarded for your efforts. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

I know I’m speaking as a member of the other team, but I think that position is essentially a moral view. It honors the intentions and the craftsmanship of the author. Books, especailly novels, are written to be read in a certain way and it is therefore quite likely that the reader will have the best experience by reading it that way.

The idea that reading it “the right way” is more satisfying does an interesting thing as I see it. It turns a momentous corner and begins to move away from a formula “right way” and toward an “experienced outcome.”  The experience of the reader, the individual reader, is the whole point of my team’s view, so I will turn to that next.

“We”—Melisa’s husband Thomas, their son Konrad and I—took the view that there were many “right ways” to read a book. Finding the right way called for some knowledge of yourself as a reader. A reader might read in a way that maximized the suspense, for instance, or that minimized it, depending on the book IMG_1165.jpgand the time of day.

I grant that the author has a plan. It may involve selling the highest number of books or getting the most favorable reviews. It may even be a work of art that emanates from his or her own inner sanctum and that is “art” in the purest way.

I don’t care.

I have a plan too. I want to live in an artfully constructed fictional world, for instance. Or, in another book, I might want to bathe myself in the beauty and urgency of the author’s prose. [1] I want to follow in fictional terms an argument that actually matters a lot to me in the real world. I want to laugh out loud and tell my Starbucks caucus the next morning what was so funny.

These are the purposes I care the most about and the “plan” of the author really doesn’t weigh very heavily against them. More so for the other team, I think, but not so much for our team. I want to read a novel in a way that gives me the best chance to experience one or more of these rewards of reading. I call it “reading strategically,” because there is plan attached to a goal.

Both Konrad and I have had the experience of reading a novel in which the plot gets tighter and tighter as if some emotional rubber band is being wound up. It makes us anxious or afraid or uncomfortable. Reading the end of the book or the end of that episode—whatever is appropriate—has the effect of relaxing that rubber band and letting us calm down so we can go back and really enjoy reading about the developments that no longer bother us.

Let me give a concrete example. A lot of people love to read mysteries for the final revelation of culpability. That’s why they call them whodunits. That’s not what I like. I like knowing what kind of story it is. Very often that amounts to who gets murdered and under what circumstances.

Then I like seeing the various plot element slide into place. These are the clues that point one way and then another. When I know what a character is going to do, I can see and appreciation the way he is first introduced into the plot. Obviously, if I didn’t know what he is going to do, I wouldn’t know how to appreciate the way he was introduced.

Of course, in order to reading 1see these characters and developments slide “into place,” I have to know where they are going. That means I have to know what happens and to do that, I have to read the ending. People who like the mystery suddenly resolved should read a murder mystery A and then B and then C, just as it is written. People, like me, who want to enjoy seeing the plot assembled should read it A and then C and then B. And that is the way I most often—not always—read a murder mystery.  Jodi Picoult’s hopes to the contrary  notwithstanding.

The very heart of our approach—Thomas and Konrad and I—as I understand it, is that every reader is free to read a novel in the way that produces the most enjoyable experience. [2] Also, I think it is a gift to teach young readers the value of “strategic reading,” in which the interests and experiences of the reader are put in first place; if we do that,  we will have made a substantial contribution to the younger generation. I would wish nothing for them but that they have a full lifetime of great reading, just as I have.

On the other hand, every kind of reading takes a certain amount of discipline and that virtue is appropriately emphasized by the other side—by Bette, Melisa, Liliana, and Lara.


There was some shifting around of positions in the two days following the discussion. Initially, I wondered why that would be. I settled on two explanations. The first is that it is not at all uncommon for people to reconsider their views after a thoughtful exchange. I don’t want quite to say that is the point of the exchange, but it is certainly not an uncommon effect.

The second is that Bette et. al, had held their views in a general way and were surprised to be in a discussion where labels were put on those views. If there is truly One Best Way, then a proponent of that way has to be willing to look a friend in the eye and say something like, “I don’t care if you would enjoy the book more the other way, you still should read it in the One Best Way.” That is not an easy thing to say, although it follows directly from the views as they were first expressed.  And it isn’t the kind of thing that either Bette or Melisa would permit themselves to say.  They aren’t that kind of person.

So I think that having the views set out formally so that the implications as well as the principles could be seen, may have aided in the shifting around.


This topic produced the first All Hands on Deck discussion by the families Jaenisch and Hess and I am very grateful for it.
[1] I remember vividly the summer I was trying to read The English Patient. I discovered that over and over, my mind drifted away from the plot (which I found myself unable to engage) toward the writing itself, which was luminous. So I did the obvious thing: I read the last page, then the next to last page, then the one before that, and so on until I had come to page 1. It was very satisfying.
[2] I am currently reading The Summer Before the War, a novel in four parts. The first part, which I read from beginning to end, is a pre-war (World War I) novel of social manners. I didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t give up. The last part is a very gritty look at war in the trenches and I got some idea of where this plot must have been in order to get all the way from A to D. Encouraged, I turned back to begin B, the second of the four sections.

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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