Reading as Skill

On the shelves of any library, if it’s big enough, you’ll find things called jeremiads.

This term comes from the biblical Book of Jeremiah. In it, the titular prophet lamented the state of Israelite society, and warned of its imminent downfall.

Today, a jeremiad is a prolonged lamentation, or complaint about society, the literary version of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Such writings rarely have anything useful to say. They can say the same thing, over and over, and people will read them because they confirm their biases. Rarely are they clever, teach anything, or make you reflect.

One style of jeremiad that all librarians seem to ascribe is the profound observation that ‘people don’t read anymore.’ It’s not just the librarians that say this either. Social commentators of all stripes seem to think that Americans are becoming stupider simply because of the fact that people are too dumb, lazy, or screen obsessed to actually read something.

Oddly, though, we read quite a bit. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, over 40 percent of people 17-29 read books daily. In the same study, a shade less than 90% reported that they read a book in the past year; those who considered themselves ‘readers’ read between 7 and 10 books in a given year, while those who did not read between 6 and 8, which is still a pretty decent number of books.

And these are just book numbers; there are plenty of other forms of writing that this survey doesn’t count. In fact, a person could make the argument that Americans, in both print and online, are reading quite a bit, and that the mythical ‘how people used to read’ is a situation that never was.

There, is, however, a problem with reading that none of these jeremiads seem to confront: reading is a skill.

With every other human skill, whether it be writing or language learning or ice skating, we understand that be improved through conscious effort and an understanding of tactics. It seems that once we pass a certain age as readers, though, we are doomed with the reading skills we have. We are not called on to get better, because we are never told the tactics of reading. There’s no metric by which we can improve.

Especially as a librarian, this is pretty disconcerting, because I didn’t realize this until I picked up Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mickics.

This is a jeremiad about reading, assuredly, and the author does spend some time on reading in the age of digital technology, but out of a 320 page book, this ‘problem’ is only given 30 pages. The rest is devoted to something much more important: the actual skill of reading.

In this book, you actually find some very solid advice on how to read. He offers 14 rules for reading all work, which on consideration are pretty solid pieces of advice, ranging from the simple, “Using a Dictionary,” that is, trying to understand where the meaning of words come from and their use, to more complex ones like “Finding the Parts,” which calls on the reader to contemplate the structure behind a particular text. He also differentiates tactics for reading essays, novels, short stories and poems.

Now this isn’t to say that the book isn’t without its flaws. Many of the reviews you’ll find admonish Mikics for his sweeping generalizations about digital reading. But Mikics gets a reader thinking about reading as a skill that can be developed. In that alone, the book is important. But even this book does not recognize that there is place for reading in a shallow way.

If you read everything slowly, trying to chew on every word as Mikics advises, you could masticate the news until your jaw ached, and not be any better for it. You might have exacting opinions about comma usage in Reuters articles, but I doubt that would improve your life very much.

For improving that kind of reading, you can go to multiple books on speed reading to make yourself read faster, so that you might still understand the content of a particular text, but take less time to do so. Tim Ferriss is not exactly an English professor, nor is he one of my favorite people, but the way he’s thinking about speed reading is correct, in that he’s thinking of reading as a skill he can improve with concentrated effort and tactics.

The fact is you need all types of reading skills. You should, as a reader, be able to switch gears depending on the situation, contemplating your reading deeply, skimming the surface quickly, or delving into the right questions to deepen understanding. Our jeremiads talk about how we don’t read all day long, but few of them actually teach us to read, and have us understand that reading is the skill we can develop beyond the senior year of high school.

And really, think about this: when’s the last time you actually thought about how to read something? Or tried to improve your ability to read? I can’t remember the last time I did that. And I’m a librarian.

Instead of yelling at kids to get off the lawn, we should try cutting it instead.

It would afford a much better result.

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