Reading is a conversation. Reading a good book or a good poem is like talking with someone who has thought things through and has managed to come up with something that is really worth saying. Our reading practices should reflect that reality. Just because there is not a person sitting in front of us does not mean that we do not owe respect to a text. We should read charitably.
We often do poorly, though, at reading charitably. So often, it seems like people treat books like a careless mining corporation, looking upon a sylvan landscape and seeing only what might be exploited and treating the rest as expendable. What are some ways we do this? When we read a book and pull from it only what we agree with, what confirms our ideology, we are reading poorly. When we reduce a text to badly contextualized bullet points, a string of quotations that we can reductively affirm or discard, we are not reading, we are exploiting.
Reading a text with the intention of merely seeking what we want is a type of intellectual vivisection, carving apart something that has managed to survive the test of time (sometimes for centuries) and harvesting it. This needs to stop.
Instead, I propose that reading well is akin to listening well. And listening well means shutting up for a time and honestly considering what another is saying.
This does not mean that we should assent to every proposition made in a piece of literature. This does not mean that everything in a book or poem is good. It means that we should give the text ample opportunity to speak to us, to change our lives, if it is right that they do so. Yet even this step is skipping ahead. First, we must listen to the text. Because reading is not audible, we have to learn how to read with our eyes open. How can we do this well?
-Ask a lot of questions: Ask what the book or poem might be saying, and why the author chose to say those things in that way. Write your questions in the margins—books have margins for a reason!
-Write more observations than criticisms. Write what you think the book or poem might be saying, rather than what you are thinking about the text.
-Suspend disbelief for a time. Aristotle commented that it was the mark of a careful mind to be able to entertain an idea without immediately accepting or rejecting it. So, give the text the chance to persuade you. And watch out for presuppositions. If you have never read that particular book or poem before, you have no reason to think you know what it says. After all, it’s annoying to have a conversation with someone who thinks they’ve got you figured out before you’ve even said anything.
-Take the text as a whole. I can’t think of anyone who would want to be judged according to isolated soundbites, and it would be hypocritical to subject the words of another to that sort of treatment. Great books and poetry must be taken as a whole, their various components considered together, if a proper perception is to be formed.
Again, all of this should not suggest that we should buy into whatever we read. There are ideas roaming the pages of literature that can do us harm. But unless we read carefully—and charitably—we will wield our evaluative powers blindly. It borders on the absurd to say we agree or disagree before we have even heard what’s been said.
Let us not, in our haste to speak, fail to listen, and so say nothing well. ‘