Some people have taken me to task recently about what I mean exactly when I talk about reading well and about teaching good reading. Let me clarify. What I certainly do not mean is that there is some set of essential techniques that most be followed in order to discover a text’s single proper meaning. What I do mean is that good reading must be characterized by a certain attentiveness, a certain concern, a certain watchfulness, that it comes from an erotic passion and a desire for the text, and that it comes to be expressed, necessarily though not essentially, through a personal practise of reading. This practise and its techniques will not be the same from reader to reader, but they will be present in one form or another in every reader.
So, since I feel capable of speaking for nobody else, let me share my own reading practise as an example of what I mean:
First, I read with sticky notes, many sticky notes, an unhealthy number of sticky notes. In fact, my biggest question about readers of the past has to do with how they managed to cope without sticky notes. I use them to flag quotations that I want to take, passages that I want to engage, ideas that I want to consider, connections with other texts, possible ideas for my own writing, and anything that might relate to the rather broad set of themes and images that I track through everything that I read.
Second, I read with a commonplace book, a hardbound notebook that I use to keep track of the books that I read. Each book gets a place on a titlepage that indicates where it can be found within the notebook. Each book’s own section begins with the date and a full bibliographic notation. The notes consist mostly of quotations and my own responses to them, with the relevant page numbers in the margin.
Third, I read with a scribble book, a hardbound notebook that I use to write whatever else needs to be written. This book has no premeditated form. It includes everything from sketches for the composter I am building for the garden or the blocks that I am making for my kids, to notes from the conversations I am having with a friend over coffee or a coworker in a meeting, to drafts of things that I am writing for this blog or for my other projects, and to just about anything else that needs a place.
Fourth, I read with a whole range of computer files. Usually these files are about a certain topic, or theme, or image, and I copy quotations or write my own notes into them toward future projects that will probably not, but just may, achieve a polished form at some point in the future.
Fifth, I read with this blog and with letters to friends. When something strikes my imagination, I open a new post or a new email, and I jot the beginnings of something there that might eventually become something that I send. I often use these media for the things that I would not otherwise know where to place: an interesting but academically insignificant literary connection, a personal or emotive response to a text, or a random piece of paper that I find in a used book.
Fifth, I read most books at least twice. On the first reading, I read the whole book, thoroughly, stopping only long enough to mark the things that I may want to read or consider or write later. On the second reading, I return to the most significant portions of the book, copying out quotations, writing responses, scribbling, thinking, pausing, reflecting.
Sixth, I read books with friends. This is not usually a formal process where I read a book with a friend for the purpose of sharing it, though I sometimes do this also. It is most often a process of sharing and recommending and discussing the books that I read as they naturally become relevant in the conversations that I have every day. It is a process of making my reading a part of my living.
This is how I read. There is nothing essential about the techniques themselves, only about the attention and the concern that requires such techniques in order to express itself. My practise of reading is essential only insofar as it is the form that passion for reading has come to take in my life. Your practise will be different, of course, but I would insist on this much: that you do find for yourself some practise of reading, something that forms your reading, in order for you to read well, and so that you can say also, “This is how I read.”