Tag Archive for Reading like a writer

Slow Reading, Close Reading, Quality Reading

“Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.” — Thomas Newkirk.

I don’t think any writer would disagree: Reading is the foundation for writing. It’s how we learn. But how do we read? And why? And perhaps: How do we want our children to read?

I’ve mentioned it here before, I’m an awfully slow reader. And I’ve come to realize that I read differently than more casual readers, since “plot” is not often my primary focus, or perhaps because I “sub-vocalize,” a definite no-no in speed reading circles. (It’s telling that we often advise writers to read their work out loud, since that same activity is perceived as a negative in terms of reading “quickly and efficiently.”)

I’m not saying that my way is the right way. But when I reflect on it, I will confess that I didn’t really learn how to read until college. Maybe that was developmentally appropriate, maybe I needed to be that age before I could grapple with the dynamics of book.

Anyway, about a month ago a friend passed along this article from USA TODAY by Mary Beth Marklein,  “Professor pushes return to slow reading.”

Here’s the opening few paragraphs:

At a time when people spend much of their time skimming websites, text messages and e-mails, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire is making the case for slowing down as a way to gain more meaning and pleasure out of the written word.

Thomas Newkirk isn’t the first or most prominent proponent of the so-called “slow reading” movement, but he argues it’s becoming all the more important in a culture and educational system that often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible.

“You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute,” he said. “That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good.”

The article goes on to mention that slow, or close reading has begun to pop up more in elementary schools. For me, it’s all food for thought. I guess there’s that old criticism, the reaction against teachers who “kill the book” by over-teaching it. As a former English Major, I can sympathize. But still, we have to ask: How much are readers getting out of the books they read? Is it better to read five books well than it is to race through 25 titles? When we talk about reading, at what point should the concept of quality enter the equation?

The article continues:

In a 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the executive humanities editor at Harvard University Press describes a worldwide reading crisis and calls for a “revolution in reading.”

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words,” Lindsay Waters wrote.

What do you think? Malarky from the Ivory Towers — or are they onto something?

How might this apply to a fifth-grade classroom?

By complete coincidence, I recently found this book, Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose, while I was digging around in my local library for something else entirely. Actually, I’m thinking the book found me.

I brought it home and read it . . . slooowly, as always. I enjoyed it, reading the examples from different texts, really looking at what’s happening on the page, bringing more of myself to bear on the text — and so I’m totally on board with Ms. Prose’s drift.  Here’s a blurb from a Publishers Weekly starred review:

“The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading — carefully, deliberately, and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing . . . Prose’s guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer’s bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.” — PW.

Newkirk shares a similar point of view, though directs it at educators (please click here to read his article in full):

Open any newspaper and you are likely to find a story of some school whose students have read a million, two million—some big number of pages. As a payoff, the teachers wear pajamas for a day, or the principal shaves his head or agrees to eat worms, a reward to the delighted students. Then Pizza Hut or some other franchise that sponsored the event hands out coupons for nonnutritious food to the voracious readers.

It’s all great fun, a good story, a terrific photo op. But something bothers me about this picture—it’s as though reading has become a form of fast food to consume as quickly as possible, just one more cultural celebration of speed.

This association of good reading with speed permeates our schools, from the hugely popular Accelerated Reading Program, to “nonsense word fluency” tests in which young children have to decode “words” at a rate of more than one per second, to standardized tests in which reading is always “on the clock.” To be quick is to be smart; to be slow is to be stupid.

In the article, Mr. Newkirk provides some practical suggestions for the classroom. I particularly liked this one, since it’s what I’ve been doing for the whole of my adult reading life:

A page from my copy of The Gathering by Anne Enright.

Writes Mr. Newkirk:

Annotating a Page

In this activity, students probe the craft of a favorite writer. They pick a page they really like, photocopy it, and tape the photocopy to a larger piece of paper so they have wide margins in which they can make notations. Their job is to give the page a close reading and mark word choices, sentence patterns, images, dialogue—anything they find effective

For example, this sentence appears on the opening page of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996): “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” (p. 11). We can hear the way McCourt repeats the words worse, miserable, and Irish, creating an ascending scale of misery. It’s a great sentence that deserves attention.

A variation of this activity is a quote-and-comment assignment in which students copy out passages by hand that they find particularly meaningful and then comment on why they chose those passages. Copying a passage slows us down and creates an intimacy with the writer’s style—a feel for word choice and for how sentences are formed. At the end of a unit in which my students have done a great deal of reading, we celebrate by selecting passages we want to hold on to and reading them aloud to the class. It always interests me to see which passages the students select.

The Reading Feeds the Writing

I read with a pen in my hand. Mark up the pages, underline passages, use check marks and asterisks, write in the margins. It’s one of the things that makes me uneasy with library books, because I lose that activity, that physical engagement with the text.

One of the things I’ve learned about book reviews, and conversations about books, is that we all read differently. I’m a slow, attentive reader, conscious always of the writer. I love sentences more than plot, closely observed details over dramatic twists and turns. When I encounter readers, especially on the blogs, who somehow seem to ingest books, one after the other after the other, I’m amazed by the pure quantity of reading. I am also, I must admit, a little distrustful. When a reader goes from book to book to book in rapid-fire fashion, isn’t that similar to watching a movie, then another movie, then another movie? How do they keep it in their heads? Doesn’t yesterday’s movie get pushed out too soon? Where’s the reflection? The after-pause? To me, the best part of reading — the part that sticks — is all the stuff that happens when you are not actually reading.

I love those books (and films) that come back to me days later, lingering in the mind. We’ve all said it, “I was thinking about that movie we saw last week.” The best ones adhere to you, but my sense is that you’ve got to leave room for that to happen. How can that essential critical experience be possible when there’s always the next thing pressing to the front of our consciousness?

Anyway, that’s preamble. I’ve recently been getting a similar question from readers: “Can you give me any writing tips?Oy. I’ve never been real comfortable with that, though I do have my ideas and convictions. I guess I don’t like the mountaintop perch. Everyone has to find his or her own way.

But in an effort to respond seriously, to point to one thing about writing, I decided to scan a few pages from three recent books I’ve read and enjoyed. Because the reading feeds the writing. And if a book isn’t useful to me in that way, I’m generally not all that interested in reading the book. A writer has got to eat.

The first scan is from The Gathering by Anne Enright. It won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Told in the first person, it offers a wounded woman’s singular perspective. And on every page, Enright crafts sentences that blow me away. She can flat out write.

This passage floored me. I especially liked the unexpectedness of that opening phrase, “There is something wonderful about death.”

This is from John Hart’s The Last Child:

This is probably more representative of what a page from a good book that I’ve read looks like. Again, I admired the subtlety of the final two lines, how the boy pushed memory aside by concentrating on specific details, “the man’s thick wrist, the clean, blunt nails.” It reminds me that every scene has its particulars, that as a writer imagining a scene I have to pay close attention.

The last example — and all of these are highly arbitrary, by the way, the result of taking three recent books and opening them to a random page — is from Colum McCann’s amazing (spectacular!) book, Let the Great World Spin:

Just a great piece of description expressed with a point of view. A man is about to walk into a hospital. I can see it. The comparison to the ash of a cigarette is brilliant, and that final sentence is funny, fresh. A hospital in need of a hospital. Definitely deserving of a check mark.