Confident reading

Independence of mind and an insistence on pleasure are both at the heart of what reading can and should be. No matter how firmly established or canonically secure an author may be... we must approach them as Emerson advises: “He is to approve himself a master of delight to me. If he cannot do that, all his fame shall avail him nothing.”

I picked up a book, titled The End of Science by John Horgan, from a used bookstore a while back. Yesterday, I opened it for the first time, and was sorely disappointed. Thinking the book would be about how our technical limitations have created limits in our ability to know or learn more about the universe, I found myself reading a passage where Horgan was interviewing Karl Popper. Horgan asked Popper about his reputation for reacting badly to criticism - an odd question, sort of like, "Is it true you're really defensive?" - and, he wrote, "Popper's eyes blazed."

Really? They caught on fire? Gosh. That must have been horrible.

Anyway, I suppose I'll look at the book again before I turf it, but I'm not too hopeful that it is in any way a sensible, measured discussion of modern science.

But that's not what I wanted to post about.

One day, I was standing at the magazine rack in a drug store, waiting for a friend to do something or other, when I noticed Stephen Brunt's Searching for Bobby Orr. I opened it to a description of Bobby in full flight across his own blue line. Brunt took me with Orr down the ice and into the goal-mouth in a way that sent shivers down my back. How long it had been since I'd read a hockey book that thrilled me with the remembered thrill of the game itself! Of course, I bought the book. And although it turned out that that was one of only about three really thrilling passages in the book, I wasn't disappointed with the purchase. When, after a time, I lost or lent or misplaced the book, I bought a second copy.

But that's not what I wanted to post about either.

What I wanted to post about was the habit, gained who knows where, of opening books to random places, reading a bit, and making judgments about the book as a whole.

Not the accuracy of the judgment, you understand. I'm no expert at textual analysis or anything. It's the habit of confidence I want to draw attention to.

In contrast, I often see newer or less successful readers starting books at the beginning and reading everything, word by word. I mean everything. Acknowledgments. Foreword. Preface. Table of contents. Table of maps and figures. Introduction. I've watched people read for twenty minutes and not yet reach Chapter One. Who'd want to do that? Who - other than the author and her editor - cares what's in the first four or six or eight or ten pages?

What makes it worse for me - I'm talking about my own frustration as a bystander apparently unable to mind my own business - is that these readers sometimes do this out of a sense of obligation. As though thoroughness of reading were a measure of personal goodness. (Now, where would people get an idea like that?) Conversely, I suppose, they would view what I do as cheating. How could I convince them that if, standing in the drug store, I had read Brunt's introduction, I would never have been persuaded to read the book.

I've tried pointing out that movie previews rarely feature the introduction, but instead highlight the middle parts of the movie. But all I'm doing is reinforcing their belief that entertainment is fundamentally difference than information, than scholarship, than learning.

Still, it's always hard to know, when looking at other people's behaviour, whether we're seeing what they will do or what they can do. Maybe, if these readers don't seem to take possession of books, if they don't appear to be masters over the things they read, it's because there is a "zone of proximal development" aspect to this. Maybe people approach books badly (ineffectively) because the books themselves are too difficult or alien.

Taking possession of a book is a metaphor, obviously, for some mixture of confidence, competence and determination. Nurturing reading competence is our trade. It's what we do. But, how can we help our learners also find confidence - the confidence not only to read a book, to to start reading when and where they want, and to cast it aside when it's less than they want? How do we help our learners gain that sort of command of their reading?

And, after, how do we avoid taking it away again in the name of education?

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