I’ve decided that reading is an art. Just as painting and music have many disciplines, and multitudes of forms of expression, so too does reading. I’m not referring to writing here, although that too is an art of many forms, I mean reading. How one approaches a novel, a poem, a biography, non-fiction, textbooks, or even a technical manual – any and all forms of reading done every day – requires a type of artistry.
The artistry comes, not in how fast or how slowly we read, nor does it refer merely to comprehension, although both of those have an importance of their own. I believe that the art comes into play when by reading we begin to learn, infer, compare, share, and finally to take it in to become a part of who we are. I began to arrive at this concept when I went back to college as an adult, pursuing a different degree. The college I attended had requirements of all its students, regardless of what courses they had taken elsewhere, or how similar they were. I found that understandable, because a degree with a college’s name on it should represent the school as well as the graduate. Therefore, one of the courses I took was called a “Senior Seminar,” each of which covered a topic of the Professor’s choice. My particular course covered modern American history, beginning with the lead-in to World War II, and forward through the McCarthy Era, and then “The Great Society” and so on. We were told at the beginning of the semester by our Professor that we would be given a number of quizzes along with the usual mid-term and final exams. The quizzes would mostly be comprised of questions about our regular, daily and/or weekly reading assignments, and also that none of the quizzes or exams would contain “trick” questions, and that all tests would have only straight-forward questions and answers. He also said that should an alternate answer to a question be discovered, the person who gave that answer would receive full credit for it, even if he or she had not given the answer he had been looking for, but could reasonably be construed as a correct answer, given the student’s interpretation of what had been read. This interpretation had, however, to be backed up with a thorough explanation and justification.
I have never been a fan of textbooks, unless they are very well-written and engaging enough to hold my attention, and thus my ability, to a degree, to absorb what I read. My so-called “art” allows me to read and comprehend even those books that I do not particularly care for. But my reading artistry absolutely does not cover all types of books. I can read one page over and over and over again, and if I am not interested, I remember nothing, and am totally unable to form any sort of cogent summary of what I have read. This embarrasses me tremendously, most especially because I consider myself a reader, and therefore an artist. That’s why I have created categories of the “reader’s art” – to give me an excuse for not being able to read and comprehend certain types of written material.
One of the very first books we were assigned to read was a rather small volume (perhaps 150 pages) covering pre-war Japan and the American political relationship with that nation. This time, my inability to read had nothing to do with lack of interest in the subject; it simply was written in a form that was beyond my apparently limited comprehension. I didn’t read this book once. I guess you could say I never really “read” it, but I certainly pronounced every word of that slim volume in my head at least five times. Anticipating a quiz soon on the contents, I started to panic, as my usual art had somehow disappeared. What was discussed and explained in the book was not particularly difficult to understand, but for me, it was impossible to retain! Even though I knew that there would be no trick questions, I nevertheless was able to come up with at least three or four of what I felt were plausible answers to each question, this being accomplished by over-analyzing each and every question way beyond the question’s intent. Needless to say, I did not do well on this quiz, which further embarrassed me, especially as I attempted, openly, during class time, to justify each and every one of my incorrect answers by pointing out what I felt were obtuse questions that could be interpreted in a number of ways. The course for me went downhill from there. My embarrassment was even further compounded by the fact that the professor was a member of the church my husband was serving and of which I was also a member.
I have done my best to put this whole classroom experience behind me, and have now chalked it up to the fact that the required reading was just “not my style” of art. Oh brother! However, as well as I am able to retain other types of writing, even to the point of being able to memorize some passages with one reading, I continue to ponder the art of reading. Assuming that all the writing is of the same approximate level of expertise (a grand assumption, I admit; but just for argument’s sake), why is some of it so impossible for me to take in and others so easy? Interest in the subject may sometimes be the difference, but that certainly is not the rule in my case. How likable the subject or style also does not change my ability, nor alter my art. So many books that I find reprehensible or downright boring, I am quite capable of giving you an outline of, years after I have read it. The answer to this is a mystery to me, so I therefore think about it in the same terms as visual art or music appreciation. One of my very best friends and I have an argument that has gone on for many, many years over the music of Richard Wagner. She is firmly and (to me) a rabidly dedicated lover of all his music. I on the other hand feel exactly the opposite. While I might be able to sit still through some of his earlier orchestral works out of politeness to the persons next to me, I simply cannot bear his operas. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Twain, who said, “I’m sure his music is better than it sounds.” Comments like these bring the two of us close to blows; as a matter of fact I think I recall a couple of times early on in high school when we might have come more than just close! (Probably over some comment of mine such as “Wagner: the original Nazi!”)
So, gentle readers and followers of my blog (who have YET to sign in as such!), do you have an answer to my question, a way out of my quandary in reference to reading being an art? Is one’s taste solely responsible for the ability to take the writing in as part of yourself, or is it something different, some ineffable quality, a “bonding of the artistry of the writer with the art of the reader?”