Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

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