What do I know about reading?

Somewhere I read the lament, ‘and then I also have to read numerous books’. This to indicate that the Christmas holidays, while welcome, are much too short to get everything done we have postponed to the end of the year. Just a matter of making a realistic list. I myself have also a pile of  unread books waiting for me, but I have selected only three which I want to read the next few days. The rest will follow when time comes.

Somewhere else I read that Umberto Eco owns a gigantic library which holds more than 30,000 titles. It seems that he divides the people who visit him into those asking how many books he has read and those who realize a library is not a showcase but intended for research. From this point of view the unread books are perhaps even more valuable than the already read. After all, they contain the knowledge you need to acquire. Eco called this collection of still to read books the ‘anti-library’.

My own library includes around one thousand titles. I estimate that a quarter is non-fiction, of which historical books are in the majority. Fiction is neatly divided between Dutch and English literature. Next to that there is a little bit of science fiction, thrillers and fantasy. How may have I read?

Depends on the definition you use.

… I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption.

Not my words, but those of Tim Parks in his article How I Read for The New York Review of Books. It is a sequel to A Weapon for Readers in which Parks advocates the use of a pen while reading. In his eyes we as readers look up too much to writers and the printed word. We are not critical enough and don’t notice that we are manipulated sometimes.

We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both.

When I look at myself I must confess that much of what I’ve read, I didn’t do it in the active mode as Tim Parks wants me to. In most cases, I let myself be carried away by the narrative of the writers I admire. I love to get lost in their worlds. Even many textbooks I’ve read that way. The study of history lends itself more for storytelling than any other scientific topic. In that sense I was not always a good student. Often I was more impressed by the author’s erudition than that I had an eye for the logical foundation of his arguments.

Reading as a form of escape. Or does it need a question mark at the end?

Whatever. I feel attracted by the two articles by Tim Parks. Now that it’s been a full year that I review every month two books for A perfect day for literature, I find myself more and more reading with a pen in hand. And making noting. In a notebook. Or in the margins of the book itself.

Again Tim Parks:

The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

When I again take into consideration my library, I see many, many books that I have not read in an active way. I suddenly own a mega large anti-library. For the same money. As a kind of year-end bonus.

But what does it mean for my reading ambition during the Christmas season? Maybe my intention to read three book can better be adjusted back to two pieces. As said, you have to be realistic. Active reading takes more time.

Also because I want to learn more about the reading process itself. How does it actually works? What happens when we read?

One more time Tim Parks:

… if reading is a skill, there must be techniques and tools that everyone can use or try, even if we use them differently.

About reading as a skill and the techniques and tools that we can use I know not much. I now realize that I was always much more concerned with books and writing than with the art of reading itself. It seems an appropriate topic for my 30 days challenge. Let’s see whether and how it will change my life when I’m going to investigate it in more depth.

[Lees in het Nederlands]

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