Our Reading Lives

Is There a “Right” Way to Read a Book?

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This is a guest post from Jennifer Marer. Jennifer is a biology student and aspiring writer. She loves fantasy, science fiction, and children’s books. Her favorite living creatures are her cats (and also probably her parents), and sharp cheese is the greatest gift someone could give her. She isn’t the worst at describing herself, but she also isn’t the best.

Check out her website science2magic.com to explore different ways on combining fantasy writing and science!

My mom tells me my grandfather used to read books “at the middle.” He’d open a novel to a random page, start reading from there until the end, go back to the beginning, and catch up to the point he left off.

It never occurred to me to consider why. I just thought it was a cool detail to tell my friends. (“My grandfather read in this totally haphazard way; you’re going to think it’s wild.”) Now as I’m struggling more and more to find time for literature like I used to, I wonder if the reason had to do with being busy.

He was constantly working. I know I feel an itch sometimes when I’m trying to relax- something that says hey, I know you’re taking a break, but there’s probably something you need to do right now. hey, actually there’s definitely something you need to do right now. right now. rightnow.

Maybe he had that itch. Maybe reading the slow introduction to a story made resisting the itch impossible. Maybe being dropped in the middle of the plot was the only way to keep him interested and engaged, and by the time he circled back to the beginning, the slow introduction was more like an exciting, engaging prequel.

I’m not sure authors would like their readers to experience their books out of order like that. At least, they definitely don’t prefer it; they put a lot of time and thought into the plot and why it’s ordered the way it’s ordered. Still- is there really a wrong way to read books? If my grandfather can analyze a book better starting in the middle than starting at the beginning, does the order really matter?

One passage of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian always worms its way into my thoughts when I find myself struggling to get through a novel.

“Listen,” [Gordy] said… “You have to read a book three times before you know it. The first time you read it for the story. The plot. The movement from scene to scene that gives the book its momentum, its rhythm. It’s like riding a raft down a river. You’re just paying attention to the currents…”

“The second time you read a book, you read it for its history. For its knowledge of history. [And the third time] you think about the meaning of each word, and where that word came from… you have to look all that up. If you don’t treat each word that seriously then you’re not treating the novel seriously.”

I used to scoff at that when I was younger. I’d thought that Sherman was making a point about Gordy’s character and mocking the way he scrutinizes every detail. But now I believe I misinterpreted. Literature analysis is just like Gordy described- searching and finding the purpose for every word. So maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m not taking a novel seriously if I’m not putting in enough effort.

I think I’ve found a reading style that works best for me. Read it once for the plot, like Gordy says, and then read it a second time to analyze, search, annotate, mark, and find all the things I didn’t at first. This makes me happiest, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone. People could be like my mom, who can’t read books more than once. Others might not have time to analyze every word. Other others might have to flip open the book to the middle just to get themselves started.

And if there is a “right” way to read- guidelines to reading “professionally”- there are definitely people out there that won’t be able to follow those guidelines. My grandmother strictly reads novels cover to cover without skimming or skipping; if she forced my grandfather to read the way she always did, maybe my grandfather would have never picked up another book again. If people can’t enjoy themselves while reading, they’ll stop reading altogether.

So maybe there is a “right” way to read, but maybe it shouldn’t be highly acknowledged.

And it definitely shouldn’t be used to shame people away from loving literature.

What do you think? Are there circumstances in which there is a right way to read? And how do you read? Whatever your style, I hope it lets you love books as much as they deserve to be loved, and I hope you’ll continue reading for a very, very long time.