The OF Blog: Reading to learn

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Reading to learn

Over the past couple of days, I've noticed a couple of posts that may be related in some sense to my New Year's post about changing my reading focus for 2011.  Interesting points why one desires not to be bounded in and why another seems to find comfort in the so-called "comfort zone."  But as I was reading through the second post, I began to ask myself that familiar question:  "Why read?"

Reading itself is an act, one that involves an active decision (forced or consentual alike).  A reader participates whenever a book, story, or article is read.  The mind has to sort through all sorts of coded symbols in order to decipher some sort of meaning from the text, the inverse of the authorial act of encoding symbols and expressions within the printed or written page.  Already from the start, there has to be some sort of effort in order for the act of reading to be rewarding.  For many, there's only a certain amount of effort that they are willing to commit to reading.  This is not anything limited to age, gender, ethnic status, educational achievement, or intellectual ability.  People from all walks of life are not readers, just as other people from those same walks of life are avid readers.

But in discussing why they read what they read, a great many readers seem to settle for seeming aphorisms about how they "read for pleasure" or for "entertainment."  On the surface, there is nothing "wrong" with that, but that reasoning seems to be rather shallow.  Ignoring the implication that other purposes for reading, such as reading for learning, are distasteful for them, what I find bothersome about claims of pleasure/entertainment reading is that those claimants are abrogating for themselves "pleasure" and "entertainment," as if reading for learning cannot include pleasurable, entertaining reading.

Take for instance the beginning to John Keats' "Endymion":

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Say the name "Keats" to many, and doubtless there would memories of being "force-fed" discussions of themes, imagery, and the like.  Perhaps for some, such discussions did ruin even that "thing of beauty [which] is a joy for ever," but for others, being taught literature was like being handed new, sharper tools for instructive and pleasurable use.  Reading to learn can open up new vistas for exploration, as the mind expands with use and increase of vocabulary.  Again, quoting Keats:

Too long, alas, hast thou starv'd on the ruth,
The bitterness of love:  too long indeed,
Seeing thou art so gentle.  Could I weed
Thy soul of care, by heavens, I would offer
All the bright riches of my crystal coffer
To Amphitrite; all my clear-eyed fish,
Golden, or rainbow-sided, or purplish,
Vermilion-tail'd, or finn'd with silvery gauze;


But woe is me, I am but as a child
To gladden thee; and all I dare to say,
Is, that I pity thee; that on this day
I've been thy guide; that thou must wander far
In other regions, past the scanty bar
To mortal steps, before thou canst be ta'en
From every wasting sigh, from every pain,
Into the gentle bosom of thy love."

Listen carefully to what is being said.  Notice the preciseness of the word placements, yet not to the detriment of the emotion being so plaintively expressed.  What else can be wrung from it that would delay the surcease of pleasure?  Poetry is my favorite of the original three genres, yet it is the one that I've neglected too often these past dozen years or so.  When I read poetry, I read it to learn how to partake pleasure in plenitude, to entertain thoughts and visions I might not otherwise have enjoyed.  It's as if I'm hearing a new melody and I want to learn its rhythms and flows in order to replicate and then respond in kind.

Yet I struggle to find that same amount of pleasure in newer works as a whole.  While there are obviously some works being published that provide pleasure in the learning how to read them, more and more there just isn't that emphasis on the deeper pleasures of reading, particularly in genre works.  I have never been a huge fan of plot-dominant works, in large part because there is little to learn beyond occurrences.  True, there are flashes of wit and charm in some tales, but on the whole, there is not the pleasure that can be found in the reading of works such as Tom Jones or Paradise Lost.

Perhaps some will argue at this point that it's difficult to judge disparate works in a similar fashion and to an extent, I would agree, but then I would counter by asking what pleasures beyond the more shallow ones of discovering a plot twist or finding out how a story ends can be found in the majority of contemporary literature, particularly those that are praised as being the best of "genre" literature?  There are, of course, several genre works that contain these pleasures and doubtless some, with some effort, could name a few and from whence their pleasures derive, but for myself, lately I have wanted to learn how to read to learn more, to feel more, to have pleasures that come from the beautiful cascading of images through metaphors into the recesses of my mind, where they can ferment and lead me to think newer thoughts.  For some, myself including, reading to learn means rediscovering pleasures lost while settling for easier, less reader-intensive reads.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I love this! I read a lot of young adult (though I hope to read less in the next year) but it isn't as much for pleasure as for mindless entertainment. For me the true pleasure of reading is from the books that I get a lot out of. These books are more often either random non-fiction or international fiction.

I haven't cultivated a love for the classics yet, maybe some day, but a lot of the current fiction just doesn't do it for me. It is shallow and I don't learn a lot - I really like learning through books. International fiction gives me that extra bit, the learning of a new place and culture that really makes it more pleasureful for me!

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