A Lesson in the Art of Reading

I learned to read  because of envy.  Some little girl in my pre-kindergarten class walked in one day, waving a Little Golden book like it was a fan. During show-and-tell she read aloud to the class.  The teachers all went nuts.  How smart she was, how sweet she was and wasn’t she wonderful to entertain the other children?  Phooey. A show-off in a pinafore is what she was and I wasn’t interested in being her audience.  I buckled down to understanding the Little Bear books Mom had been reading aloud and soon there were two readers in my Pre-Kindergarten. With a little help from Dr. Seuss, I left Blondie behind in the dust. Since then, I’ve read most things with ease.

The thing is, even a talent for reading won’t make every book easy and some worthwhile works require effort.  I found that out in high school when we were assigned Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and all those Russian characters were confusing me.  That is also where I learned the single greatest reading trick.  When you sit down to read a challenging work, have something close you can write on.

Let me go back to “The Cherry Orchard”

This play may be instantly comprehensible to people who grew up in Russia but it can drive American teenagers crazy.  Almost every character has at least three names and they were usually referred to by at least two of them.  We couldn’t even pronounce the lines, much less make sense of the plot.  So our teacher had us create a page for each character and write everything we learned about them on their particular page. (Always short of notebook paper, I put 3 or 4 on a page).  At any rate, as I learned things about the characters, I added data to the collections of notes, drawing arrows from one entry to another as I memorized the relationships between them.  (Lyubov mother to> Anya is an example).  It was slow going at first, since I was writing down everything, but pretty soon I was writing down my impressions as well (Is Yasha fooling around with Lyubov?  He’d better not, he’s dating Dunyasha!)  and the characters were coming to life.  Fairly soon I could remember all the characters and I didn’t need to rely on the notepad.

That practice served me well a few years ago when J. K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy.   After her like-able and easy to read Potter series, The Casual Vacancy was an unwelcome surprise to those who secretly expected all of her books to be charming.  Instead there was a huge cast of unpleasant people trying to manipulate each other.  A lot of readers gave up.  Me, I’m stubborn so I got out the old steno pad and started making notes.  By a third of the way through I could see where the author was going  (she has a huge social conscience) and I didn’t need the pad any more.  Now when I can’t keep focused on the text, out comes the  pencil and paper.

A lot of people think reading should be easy, and popular literature follows that mantra, but some really good books require effort. If you want to try something a bit more sophisticated but you’re having trouble keeping up with the characters, break out the pencil and paper.  Give big characters a page of their own where you can write about them, allow extras to share a page.  Write down what you know, and draw arrows or underline until you understand what’s going on.  And if you see my English teacher, Mr. Schultz, tell him the old technique still works.

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