What I Read, How I Read, and Why I Read That Way

Here is what I read today, which is pretty typical (except that during the school year I would be adding school work, memos, papers, and school-related texts I am teaching to the mix):

  • Dante's Inferno, Cantos 19 and 20
  • Plato's Republic, Intro and first ten pages of R. E. Allen translation
  • New York Times (on Kindle)
  • Misc. postings on English Companion Ning
  • Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer article in latest English Journal on initial findings from their major study of writing instruction in U.S.
  • Daily Drucker, collection of writings by business thinker Peter Drucker (1 page)
  • In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way, Marcel Proust (25 pages)

The next question is how I read all that in the course of a day. There are several ways to answer this, but I:

  • skim a lot, reading with a specific purpose in mind. So do I read the whole New York Times? Of course not. I want to read as little of it as possible, to be honest. I find my Kindle ends up being perfect for this kind of reading as it shows me the title and a few lines of context. If the article is not somehow related to what I am teaching, thinking about, writing about, or otherwise interested in, I learn as much as the title and those three lines tells me. I always read David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, anything having to do with education, publishing, books, technology and a few other topics.
  • wake up early (5 during the school year, 6 during the summer) and go to Peet's for coffee and time to read, think, map out the day.
  • read closely–with pencil, index cards, notebook–professional books and journals I am reading for books I am writing. Today, for example, I was moving in and out of the Applebee and Langer article, making index cards, annotating it, jotting down notes for a presentation in LA on Friday about writing instruction, and going on-line to consult articles, books, or topics they reference (e.g., the Neglected R report on the state of writing instruction). 
  • take a book or magazine with me wherever I go, even if it's to the kitchen to make coffee. Why stand in the kitchen when you can read a poem from Jack Gilbert's new collection, catch something from the New Yorker for a few minutes,  or savor a passage from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations
  • stay up late (usually midnight), savoring the quiet, winding down with a little fiction, Proust lately being the perfect music to drift off to.

Finally, the question of why read in such a seemingly random way? Well, it's anything but random to me, as it turns out. Some reading is for school–Dante, Plato–though it's inevitably for me, too, since I am choosing to read it. One of my summer goals was to read certain texts for my AP class and to learn more about philosophy so I can incorporate it into my class. But I am also a very associative, spiral reader, finding interesting connections across as well as within texts that lead to new associations. Reading Friedman's column today, for example, about the "virtual mosque," helped me understand certain trends and aspects of the English Companion Ning in a new way. But as I was reading Proust, whose work has been seemingly referenced in so many things I have read in recent months, I found allusions to Dante's Inferno which I now understood. Still, while reading Dante, I came across, in Canto 20, the passage about the false prophets such as Tiresias, and so my reading of Dante and Plato gives me ideas and notes to return to in August when we read Antigone and Oedipus, this being the original reason for me to read these texts. This cross-fertilization helps me see new connections or old connections and ideas in a new light.(And wasn't everything I read in The Republic about Iran really as its primary subject is the just ruler and the social contract?)

Moving in and out of texts is how I have read for some time; paradoxically, it has made me a more deliberate, patient reader as I am not in a hurry to finish. As the novelist Tim O'Brien said in a talk once, "Once I finish a book I tend to stop thinking about it." I tend to think of all these books as ongoing conversations to which I can–and do–return when I am in the mood or have a need it can satisfy, a question it can help me answer or at least think through. In this respect, a good text becomes like a stone against which I like the sharpen my mind.

I guess to all the above, I should add that I skimmed and tasted a steady diet of tweets throughout the day, and now I have read a blog…this one–three times.

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4 Responses to “What I Read, How I Read, and Why I Read That Way”

  1. Fascinating. You could be describing my day, but the landscape is different.
    The question that occurs to me is how can one organize time in a school day to allow students to learn the joy of this kind of rambling stroll through the world of words?
    I know that if I am forced to focus on X for more than 10 minutes it gets me jumpy and angry. But if I choose to focus, I can spend the next three or X hours happy and absorbed.

  2. Jim Burke June 18, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I like the idea of a “reading landscape,” Michael. I hadn’t thought of it quite in terms of attention, but I think you’re on to something, especially when we think about kids in our classes these days.

  3. I find I have to limit the number of books I’m reading to 2 or 3, or else I have trouble, but like you, I read to try to make new connections and to understand things I think I know in new ways.

  4. I enjoyed your post, Mr. Burke. I am going to look up Drucker online.

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