[Note: This blog is the prepared words for my speech to the Portland UCG Spokesmen’s Club on February 8, 2015.]
I trust that all of us in this room are literate, and that even if we do not all read for fun, that we all see the need to read seriously for comprehension and understanding, whether that is reading the Bible in our personal devotions, a textbook for classes, or a memorandum at work. Considering the fact that we all have to read a great amount in life, it is worth reading well. I would also like to give at least some credit to a book that helped me sharpen my own thoughts about reading, How To Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler. In exploring how to read a book better, I would like to focus on three elements, understanding the nature of the work that we are reading, what steps are necessary to understand a book better, and what layers of reading are appropriate for the sort of reading we all do.
First, let us briefly examine the types of reading that we may be asked to do. We may attend a class and be assigned chapters out of a textbook to read. We may come to work early in the morning and find ourselves with an e-mail from the president of our company asking us to do a certain task for him. We may rise from bed in the morning or prepare for sleep in the evening and look to read a few chapters of the Bible, or we may have a study we wish to do for ourselves of the Scriptures. Alternatively, we may be reading for fun, whether it is a juvenile dystopia novel or the screenplay to Fiddler on the Roof, or we may have some books to review for a publisher or a scholarly journal that we need to analyze and critique. All of these tasks require that we read for different reasons, and require a different approach, requiring that we read with skill and sensitivity.
What are the steps required to do this? First, it is worthwhile to examine the front material of a work (its preface and introductory material), its conclusion, any cover material that will help us to understand the purpose and audience and intent of the work. We should then outline the work, determine its organization, and note the contents in each area, and ponder how these contents serve the overall aim of the author. To the extent the author has an explicit argument, we should look at what evidence is included or omitted to see the strength of his case. It is also useful to examine the patterns of a text–does it refer to or hint at other areas of the text, or does it contain references to or influences from outside texts? Following these connections allows us not only to understand a text, but also to determine its place in the greater conversation the text is a part of.
What layers of reading may we engage ourselves in? Let us start with the surface and dig deeper from there. To the extent that our reading is for amusement, we may simply wish to read on the surface level, enjoying the pleasant memories or thoughts or feelings that are prompted by a well-written and possibly familiar text without any deeper thought or reflection. However, to the extent that some externally evaluated performance is involved in our reading, we need to understand what the text is saying so that we may respond to it appropriately, be it in school or at work. If we are required to critique a text, understanding its arguments and use of evidence is important. We may also find areas in the text that can be usefully practiced and applied in our own lives. We may also wish to examine a given text in the larger conversation of writings, be it all of the memos we have received from a boss or the entirety of scripture, to place a text in a suitable context that allows for more accurate understanding and interpretation.
What is the point of taking all this effort to read a text? Much depends on our motives. Are we looking merely for enjoyment or amusement? If so, little effort is required. Yet if we are evaluated or graded based on performance, we need to understand what we are reading. If we wish to apply what we read to our lives, we need to understand the boundaries of application for a given text, and the assumptions it makes about us. If we need to critique or analyze a text, we must seek to understand the text as well as its author, and be able to understand what was left out, and think of possibilities why. An author may omit material because of a shortage of time or space, the awkwardness of addressing certain issues, or a desire to leave out material that would be damaging to one’s position, all of which is important to consider when reading a text. After all, we all have important texts to read in our lives, from e-mails from bosses to textbooks in school, to the Bible by which we structure and order our lives. To do well in our jobs and to live well, we must also know how to read well. Let us therefore read well.