It is very common for people to want to create or attend writer’s workshops, but how many people do the same thing for reading? There are obviously some asymmetries when it comes to reading and writing, but it should be recognized that for someone to make a success of themselves as a reader there have to be a great many people who are as successful as readers as one is as a writer. That is why there is so little of a market for poets these days, because more people write poetry than appreciate reading the poetic efforts of others. It is only when people are willing to put down money and spend a fair amount of time with a particular type of creative work that it will be profitable for such a work to exist. Clearly, even with the proliferation of books that are self-published and that no one has ever read, there still exists profit in people seeking to become writers with the expectation of having a great many readers. But how does one learn how to read well?
That is not a question that is easy as one might first assume. Though most Americans at least learn how to read at or before the age of 5, learning how to read well is a task that takes a great deal of intentional effort that is often wasted. One can read very enjoyably for fun and read only those things that one enjoys and one will be the sort of reader that is appreciated by those whose books one guys and reads and will not have to go through much effort after one figures out what one likes. This sort of reading has the little-known benefit that the more one reads, the more one tends to find books that one likes, because writers will frequently refer to other works that they like and the fact that a given work is successful will encourage more people to write the same sorts of works in slightly different format beyond the prolific nature of the writers that one may happen to enjoy in the first place. If you love Louis L’Amour westerns, for example, one will have a nearly inexhaustible source of pleasure, the same as if one loves the mysteries of James Patterson, or other writings by prolific genre writers whose careers are sustained on such appreciation.
It is not this sort of reading that teachers spend so much time trying to instruct readers on, though. Most of the time, the sort of books that we read in school are designed for one of a few purposes. At times teachers will try to pander to the mood of their readers and give morally corrupt but relatable works that are designed to fulfill various purposes while being aimed at the sensibilities of young readers (Lord of the Flies and Sylvia Plath’s poetry, for example). At other times teachers will seek to provide some sort of classics that readers should be able to appreciate on literary grounds, regardless of their own preferences and tastes. This would include the plays of Shakespeare but it can include more obscure (and more dodgy) works like Kate Chopin’s Awakening, which has a habit of appearing frequently on standardized tests. These efforts do not stop at the end of high school but continue on in one’s studies in a university where one may have to read a dozen or more novels about Los Angeles or explore literary and film theory, based on the sorts of general education requirements someone may have to take. Even among the most religious of students, many seminaries force students to take books that review the Bible as merely literature and that seek to erode the faith of those who would wish to dedicate their lives to teaching and sharing Christianity to others. While this is certainly what many instructors would consider to be good instruction in reading, it often is not so.
What then makes someone a good reader? There are all kinds of levels where someone may wish to examine the quality of their reading. How quickly can one read and how well can one understand what one is reading? At what level does one read? These are areas where it is certainly possible to gain an understanding of one’s reading. More difficult is the matter of knowing the quality of one’s reading, since this often involves making judgments on the value of certain works or certain genres and generally reveals the sorts of biases we have as readers (and we all have them). Does one read merely for enjoyment, or does one read for instruction or does one read to engage the author in a sort of conversation and read enough about a subject to have a synoptical or even an encyclopedical knowledge of a given subject? Can one read a book and figure out not only what the author is saying and what they have chosen to omit or misrepresent based on the available facts but also what agenda the author is trying to push? And can one do all of these things and answer all of these questions while still enjoying the process of reading even if one does it critically? Speaking personally, at least, being a good reader means not only mastering the mechanical skills of comprehension as well as the difficult task of being a critical reader who brings background knowledge and an understanding of context and genre to the materials one reads, but also someone who enjoys what one reads and a healthy respect and regard for those who have dedicated their lives to writing texts.
Often, being a good reader will be related to being a good writer as well. These tasks are often complementary. Reading a lot gives us a lot of raw material to think about and a lot of things that we can say about what we read. Likewise, in order to feed one’s writing it is often necessary to do a lot of reading as well. To take the example of Louis L’Amour, his own writing of Westerns involved very close and very interesting historical research. Jane Austen’s enjoyment of novels and history and even sermons directly fed her own writing, where she makes it clear what sort of books she is familiar with, be it the Baronetage or Fordyce’s sermons or the novels of Fanny Burney and others. We cannot be good writers unless we are good readers, and if our good reading does not result in us becoming writers, we will certainly have much to talk about and will be better conversationalists for having something interesting to say based on our reading of various books of quality. Whether or not we wish to be creative people ourselves from our reading, at the very least learning how to read well will make us less boring people and certainly better informed people when it comes to understanding the agendas of writers, including contemporary journalists, whose biases are frequently well worth exposing and rejecting. Whether or not that makes us better people depends on what materials we read and enjoy and what purposes we have for reading and what the result of or reading is on our thoughts and behavior. Such a task is well worth taking seriously, far more seriously in fact than we often tend to take it.