Parents sometimes say things like “Amanda learned to read at four years old” as if it was an event that happened. One day she couldn’t read and the next she could. End of story. But the story doesn’t end.
It took me a long time to realize that learning to read is a lifelong project. If we get lazy and don’t push our reading for a while, we backslide, like learning to ski or to play chess or piano.
When I first encountered undergraduates from the other side of the room, I told my friend Steve, “My undergrads don’t know how to read.” Without missing a beat, he said “Of course not. That’s why they’re in college.”
And he was right. Humanities majors learn to be good readers in college and beyond in the same way mathematicians become good at math through university and beyond. Aside from exceptional cases, few of them will be expert readers upon graduation. That will take many additional years of practice.
Though I’m pretty good, I have had the chance in my life to encounter (not just meet) some truly great readers. The first one I noticed was David Loewenstein around 1990. David is an expert on Milton and seventeenth-century English literature in general. He was the first reader I encountered who appeared to interrogate every word and go deep into the text. I am certainly doing disservice to my undergrad philosophy and religion professors, not to mention that I was briefly befriended by world-class reader Michel Foucault during his 1982 visit to Vermont (which was a key event in keeping me from dropping out of college, but that’s another story).
It would be more correct to say that it was the first time I felt aware that someone was reading with more attention and understanding than I brought to the text. It was the first time I saw how I could try to do it myself. Before that I am sure I met some great readers, but I wasn’t a good enough reader myself to see the difference between them and me, let alone the bridge that would take me across the waters.
David’s course also introduced me to theories of literary criticism, which showed me additional paths into a text. I’m a historian for God’s sake. We don’t read. We certainly don’t do reader response criticism of city council proceedings. We ransack texts for bits and pieces that can go in footnotes. Encountering scholars of poetry and later theology who read with such focus on such small pieces opened my mind to how difficult deep reading really is.
In 1992, I met Olivier Fatio who I still think of as the finest reader I have met. I audited Olivier’s class where we spent the entire course reading one slim volume for which he had prepared the critical edition. I had never done such in-depth reading, covering just a few pages a week in a graduate course. Moreover, the text was, in theory, not even a difficult one. It was a simple, light, fun polemic — John Calvin’s Des scandales. In a typical history course, that would have been one week’s reading. Maybe coupled with a contrasting text.
With this type of deep reading, you have the time and space to question every word. What does this word mean? Why this word and not a synonym? Why does that word repeat? It brings you deep into the text.
I had the chance to see the value of long practice in deep reading when, eight years later, Olivier returned the favor and audited my course. The student becomes the teacher, though I think I learned as much from Olivier as he did from me in my course. I was teaching a very brief seminar (five sessions, fifteen hours) on the Geneva Consistory for the Cours d’Été at the Université de Genève.
The course had a dozen or so PhD students and a few faculty members. When I presented difficult texts that people struggled with, the discussion would lag. But Olivier always had laser focus on the absolute heart of the matter, the implications of the passage and perception of everything in play. Though I had spent a lot of time with the these texts, Olivier’s comments and reading would often nevertheless add to my understanding.
I was awe of the tools that a lifetime of focused reading had given him (he was 58 at the time).
How Most of Us Read and How to Get Better
When I teach paleography to grad students and faculty in French literature, theology and history, I am teaching to the cream of the crop — people who were so good at reading that they became professional readers. And yet, they are not Olivier Fatio. They piece together a handwritten passage, finally sure they have it deciphered. Then I’ll ask, “Okay, so what does that mean?” And often, they draw blanks. Until asked, they don’t realize they haven’t really gotten to the heart of it. Most of us read this way most of the time.
The main skill I got better at when creating critical editions of difficult texts was to ask of every phrase “What does it mean?” Rather than feeling like you know what a word means from context or based on its modern meaning, when editing a sixteenth-century text, you always have to ask whether a word meant the same thing then as it does now. You spend a lot of time in dictionaries looking up words you “know,” because, in fact, you don’t. And then you have to ask whether you have understood the cultural context. You have to ask if there is a double meaning, a play on words, an oblique reference.
Producing a critical edition of a difficult text is like careful proofreading, but for ideas, meaning and context rather than spelling and punctuation.
So how do you get there?
The main thing is to practice slow reading. Ask if the plain meaning is really plain (or if there is such a thing as plain meaning). Ask if you know what every word means. For example, what does slow mean here? If I were creating an edition of this text, I might be off for the next several hours researching the rise and fall of speed reading courses in the late twentieth century (at least they seem to have fallen). I might alert the reader to the possibility that slow reading is a hat tip to the slow food movement and is meant to show that as slow food only takes on meaning in the context of fast food, so slow reading takes on meaning in the context of speed reading.
And maybe after hours of thinking and research, I will feel comfortable that I know what I meant by slow reading. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I meant any of those things when I wrote those words, but it doesn’t matter. I write against a cultural background of fast food, slow food and speed reading, whether it is consciously in my head or not.
Under most circumstances, though, we don’t ask what the word “slow” or the word “reading” means. We “know” those words, so we stop there. Obviously, we don’t usually have time to read with such attention and depth, but doing it from time to time as a regular practice is how you learn to read.