Reading As Conversation

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. ‘

Published by

Hayden Butler

Hayden Butler is an ardent student of Literature. He is passionate about the role of narrative as a cultural device, and believes that the careful study and enjoyment of story can make us deeper and more virtuous as Christians and as human beings. He recieved his B.A. in English Literature at Biola University, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the Inez McGahey Award for Literary Scholarship. He graduated from the Torrey Honors Institute, attaining to the Order of Peter and Paul. Hayden’s academic interests include critical theory, metaphysical poetry, and philosophy of education. Outside of the classroom, he is a student of martial arts and oil painting, loves a good cup of tea, and owns an embarrassing number of Star Wars novels. He seeks to live an examined life in peace and beauty. He currently teaches AP Literature and Geometry at Capistrano Valley Christian High School and works as a waiter at a Victorian Tea House.

  • Amy Cannon

    Your last adjuration is a good one. This danger you identify is perhaps particularly present even when we love a text — I find myself often so hasty in my praise of or our elaboration on the author’s point that I am in danger of missing its nuances.

  • Dustin Steeve

    Your last adjuration was almost as good as Amy’s current profile pick. You’re rocking those aviators Amy!

    Hayden, this advice makes a lot of sense when I’m reading some sort of argumentative work like a political commentary or a work of philosophy, but how ought one read something like Shakespeare or Lewis? Do you find yourself marking up the margins of your more story driven texts?

  • Rachel Motte

    For what it’s worth, I do argue with characters in a book when I disagree with them. I sometimes cheer them on, too, when I’m happy with them, and sometimes I make notes questioning their sanity/motives/intelligence (sorry, still not over Twilight yet I guess…)

    I have a hard time marking up Lewis, unless it’s to write “yeah” or “yup” or “huh, never thought of that” over and over. >_<

  • Hayden Butler


    I think that these techniques are entirely applicable to the study of more story-driven books. Rachel alreday covered a few questions you can ask, things like character motive and disposition. I can also be helpful when reading a story to keep a post-it note in the book for cross-referencing. For example, you can write something like “water images” as a topic, and keep track of the all the places in the book where that topic is mentioned. In this way, you start developing a better sense for how a book’s parts fit together, and it also allows you to track with recurring themes, which are integral for understanding the text as a whole.

    And Amy is indeed rocking those aviators. Amy, why are you so cool?

  • Lauren Myracle

    And Hayden, you’re rocking the fairy wings.

  • Kat van Elswyk


    Great thoughts. A good reminder for me as I attempt to read as a teacher, not just a student anymore.

    Do you think all books deserve this amount of attention and respect? I’m thinking specifically of academic works that seem to be written with the author knowing full well they will be “vivisected,” not “digested.”

  • Hayden Butler


    I can relate to the process of re-learning my reading strategy in making the transition from being a student to being a teacher. It keeps one on one’s toes.

    As cantankerous as I can be about books sometimes, deep down I do think that all books deserve this amount of attention and respect. Just the other day, an acquaintence pointed out something meaningful, and actually quite profound, in “Go,Dog,Go” by Dr. Seuss.

    With regards to the sort of texts you mentioned, it strikes me that all authors to some extent expect their works to be vivisected. Even so, I do not think we should take that expectation as a sort of permission to be exploitative in our reading. I think it holds true, even with works that seem written to be analyzed, that we give them the dignity of our charitable reading. I’d even say that our charity in reading will make our analysis more thorough and accurate than a ‘vivisection-reading’ ever could.