The Skill of Reading
In this post, I want to bring the skill of reading back into the critical-thinking space in your mind.
Because it is a skill.
It is a cognitive function which uses the eyes to recognise, process and act upon information (moving from line to line).
Now with any skill, there is a distribution of how adept people are at it. Think of driving – some drivers are simply better than others – whether you take the metric to be awareness, efficiency, safety, emotional stability etc. In a similar fashion, some readers are going to be better than others.
But unlike with good drivers and bad drivers, this may not be at all obvious.
Maybe you're a good reader. Maybe you're a bad one.
It’s also the case that, as with driving, simply spending a lot of time doing the activity doesn’t guarantee improvement. Using the skill maintains it at a certain level of adequacy, but it is deliberate practice which improves a skill, which is why all London commuters don't become F1 drivers.
So though you read every day, whether it’s messages, blog posts, signs, notes, love letters, books etc, chances are your reading skill hasn’t changed much in the last few years.
There are many metrics by which to measure this 'skill' - your vocabulary range, reading speed, retention, comprehension, endurance.
On endurance in particular - how long can you read something for without wanting to divert your attention? Normally people cite something being boring and hence they pause reading, but really if something is moderately interesting, how long can you read for until you want to stop?
Blaming the material is analogous to someone going for a run and stopping after 5 minutes saying that the weather wasn’t ideal, or they didn’t feel that great, week after week…
When was the last time you sat down and read for an hour? Or two?
Still with me?
Many people who take holidays typically take a book with them, thinking it’s a time to perhaps catch up with some relaxing reading while sitting at a poolside or beach – and you may be one of these people – but for how long do they read for continuously, really? A pause to take a dip, have a drink, talk with a friend….
Reading is a skill. Perhaps the most valuable skill one can have. It opens you up to all of humanities knowledge. If there was a 'master key' reading would be it.
By reading one language you can learn how to read another. Through the greatest invention ever – books – you can step inside the mind of a man or woman from hundreds of years ago, hearing their thoughts and sit with them as they wrote on a candle-lit desk, in a trench or palace. You can watch monumental clashes of history or mentally re-enact the minute details of the beginning of the universe.
In this context, it seems a bit odd that we don't think about the act of reading itself more often.
One of my favourite books is a book that brought this to my attention. It was first written in the 1940’s. It’s called, simply:
How To Read A Book.
Does it say something about the confidence I have in my intellectual abilities that this title appealed to me? Possibly, but this isn’t a post about psychology.
Quite frankly, it’s a wonderful look at the act of reading. It talks about levels of reading, ways to think about your relationship as reader to an author and approaches for reading different material – be it science, philosophy, literature and so on. It completely blew my mind when I read it., not because it was crazy but rather because it was so blindingly obvious and yet I had never considered it.
If you're at all curious to learn more thoughts on this idea, I'd recommend checking it out. Not only did it help me with learning from academic material, but actively increased my enjoyment of fiction and stories.
But if you don't have time for that, take away this one thought:
Be mindful of how you practice reading.
Much as we’d expect the taxi drivers of NYC to have a different style of driving than the truckers of the Aussie outback, as we shift into an age of 140 character tweets, micro-captioned snapchats and the occasional blog, so will our style of reading change.
And much like there’s a joy of getting out on to the open road and away from congested city streets, there’s a joy in sitting down and cruising through an epic, long novel.
Sure like when you decide to go for a run when you haven’t run in a while, it may be a bit uncomfortable. And yes, you will have to set time aside for it.
But at the end, you’ll be glad you did.
So set aside an hour, pick up some proper fiction - a good story - make yourself a hot beverage, kick back, and explore universes beyond the usual solar system of your imagination.
I'd be remiss if I didn't use this opportunity to recommend you some books which, in my humble opinion, really fit the bill for the activity I recommend above.
Skulduggery Pleasant – This is an allegedly fictional story about a magical talking skeleton detective.
Guys it’s a magical talking skeleton detective, what more do you want?
But in all seriousness, it’s an amazing series. Set in the magical city of Dublin, it follows the adventures of Skulduggery and his budding apprentice Valkyrie in this secret magical society. Landy’s writing is enviably hilarious and addictive in equal measure. Pretty much I’m just sat there with a childish grin on my face whenever I read these. Yes it’s aimed at teenagers. Yes it’s silly. Yes, it’s great fun.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Moving into a more adult story; a fantasy world following a band of thieves/con artists called the Gentlemen Bastards. Within the first 50 pages, you’re flung into a renaissance style world in the middle of a tenuous heist. There are lots of twists, characters are not at all safe from surviving the book and it’s got a fantastic ending. Plus there are sequels…
The Name of the Wind – this is probably my favourite novel series I’ve ever read. It’s the only series where once I finished it, I immediately went back and re-read it.
It follows the life story of a man named Kvothe. We are introduced to him during the present day, he is hiding out in a small town as an innkeeper, under a different name. Someone tracks him down and demands his story, as he is known as a legendary figure who has been greatly involved with how the state of the world has come to be (the details of which are all infuriatingly alluded to). The narrative lens flickers back and forth between the past and present, and we begin to piece together ideas of what happened to the world and this man.
As ever, if you want to discuss anything I've mentioned here, please feel free to comment, message or email me, would love to discuss further.