The Art of Reading

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
(Luke 2:46-47)

The Art of Reading

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During summer vacations in grade school, my dad sponsored reading contests. My sister, Diane, and I kept records of all the things that we read during the summer and at the end of the summer we earned some sort of prize for having read the most. I have long forgotten the prizes that we earned, but I loved reading the Hardy Boy and the Lone Ranger series and frequent trips to the library and local used book stores where such books could often be purchased for something like a quarter. Long after our summer reading contests were forgotten, I found it natural to explore new reading topics during the long summer school breaks.

In the fall of 1971 at Parkdale Senior High School, I was invited to take an honors history course with Mrs. C. Signing up for this class was a big deal because we earned college credit and attended seminars at the University of Maryland. Actually, I only remember a single seminar on a Saturday at the university and a huge reading list for the class. I struggled to complete the reading and to write the paper that we were assigned. Friends of mine skipped the readings and made up fanciful book titles to justify imaginative conclusions to their papers. It was an open joke throughout the class, but Mrs. C. never called them on it. The whole affair offended my sensitivities and I was proud to have completed the readings, but when Mrs. C. gave me a B for the class, I complained exposing the cheaters for making light of the class. She never said anything, but changed my grade to an A.

My experience with history did not sour me on reading.

I did not always understand what I was reading, but I found reading useful on two levels, as I learned in my college experience with economic history. On the surface level, was reading for content picking out the facts and the dates, as in reading history only as a narrative or chronology. On a deeper level, however, was to read paying attention to how the author argued his case. The case could be argued in terms of historical observations with hypotheses proven, presumably, by the number of observations explained by the hypothesis.

I learned to solve the problem of not understanding a particular author by reading more than one author in a field. A particular field, like history or psychology, started to make sense after reading a half-dozen books in the field; reading a dozen books generally made one a regular expert, even in tougher fields like learning a new computer language—as I learned later in my career. Writing book reviews throughout my career has sped up the process by forcing one to study the author’s method of argumentation, even when it might not be obvious on the first pass. Of course, authors having little or no obvious structure to their thought—chapters thrown together in kind of like a verbal collage—were also exposed at this point.

None of this was obvious in grade school when I started writing. I read because I loved reading and learning new things. Things that helped make my world more interesting; things that gave me something to talk about; things that replaced maybe the emptiness of life in the slow lane. When I read and wrote myself out, life simply made more sense. And I like it that way.

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