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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