On studying : part 1: three category of reading

Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2
Polonus: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet:Word, words, words.

In seminary a big part of the studying is reading and writing. Those are the tools of the trade. If you cannot read and write, you will suffer. It is as simple as that.

Reading is something I have been doing my teens but only these two terms offers me a different perspective. I thought I know how to read, well, not really.

I am sure there are people who can offer a lot more on reading but here is a bit of reflection based on my experience. I want to classify reading into three categories: causal reading, careful reading and close reading.

Causal reading is almost universally where everyone starts reading with. We either find it a pleasure or a necessarily to read so we do. Say you pick up a mystery and cannot put it down. Say you go to a restaurant when you are hungry and you start reading the menu. Either case your attention is basically to answer the question of “what”. What is going on? What is available? What facts do I want to know? Basically you pick and choose what is in the text to answer your question and that is about it. Occasionally you will find a good word or a good sentence that you like but that is the caveat not the primary objective. Most of we read this way our entire life. I certainly did.

Careful reading Is usually associated with school or work. You need to do this because simply you have to. It is different from causal reading because the “what” is not what you want to know but what you were told to know. You still pick and choose but you choice are now limited to include quite often what you don’t really care much about. You need to read what will be on the exam. You need to read a manual so you can do your work. A question of “why” naturally emerges. You ask either “why” the author is saying this or you ask “why” you are reading this. The scope of you reading then includes not just “what” but also “why”.

Finally, there is close reading. Close reading has recently emerges as a technical term in literary criticism circles but that is a different story. By close reading I mean you read closely. Every word and punctuation is important. A story is not a story but a plot. There is subtext and context behind every text. You read behind. You read in front. You are not just asking “what” and “why” but also “how” and the correction between almost everything. You ask load of questions. As Old Testament scholar Goldingay in a paper “How far do readers make sense” says ‘No close reading of a work is ever close enough.’ You will always be re-reading.

As I continue to learn how to read, I am realizing causal reading does not always do the text justice, particularly when it comes to scripture. Casual reading of scripture can be detrimental in forming habit to just pick and choose. On the other hand close reading is not be done indiscriminately either, far too often the reader got distracted by paying too much attentions to a single feature. It is an art to know when to dive in and when to stand back. To disregard the spectrum of reading is a lifetime of learning. Reading is really an acquired skill that I believe no one should do without. I regret I wasted many years not learn to read better. I never did push myself enough to learn properly. Now that I am learning, I guess it is better late than never.

A while back I read a little book by Daniel Pennac called “Better than life”. The book is about teaching children to read. He begins with the axiom that we all have the right not to read. Reading is not an obligation. It is often this compulsion that is an obstacle to many. Reading should be completely optional and pleasurable. The paradox is that once you are free from obligation and start reading you’ll find reading should be obligation for everyone.


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