Saturday, April 02, 2005

How to Read Carefully

Writing this for an egroup helped me clarify it in my own mind so I thought I'd post it here. No one's reading this blog but me at present, because I am still finding my feet at this weblog thing, but maybe I'll find it sometime when I need the reminder.

I'm a fast reader too. It has its advantages, doesn't it, otherwise why would we do it? It's great for getting a superficial handle on a new subject, in preparation for digging more deeply in a focused way, and there's probably other benefits too. You can read a whole Agatha Christie or Tony Hillerman in a dr's waiting room or on an airline flight. Sometimes you read it again years later and it seems like new to you because you read it so fast the first time ;-).

But I've been working on trying to slow down at least in some books with the kids. Here are some ideas.

One thing that works somewhat is to pick books that are too hard for them, and/or books in subjects that they aren't necessarily fascinated with. One kid of mine devours science and history books, but another prefers fiction and so I can give him heavier history narratives and he won't read more than a chapter at a time, maybe twice a week. The kid that likes history doesn't necessarily inhale Plutarch, so he is reading Plutarch alongside Shakespeare. He only reads a few pages of Plutarch at a sitting, where he'll read books about mammals or trees or whatever much faster and so those go in our "free reading" category.

Another method is to ask for lots of narrations -- not just general narrations on a chapter, but narrations for every page or even a shorter amount. I did this with my 12yo on a more difficult religious book and though he didn't like it at all, he got the "argument" of the book a lot better when he was narrating after every paragraph or two.

Another method is to combine fast and slow reading. .... traditionally called lectio cursiva and lectio statataria. You do this with great but LOONG books, like the Iliad, or a corpus like the Greek tragedies. You read a fair amount at a reading but then take a key passage per time period to micro-analyze, diagram, imitate, rewrite. That part becomes representative of the whole and develops, at least in theory, a habit of more careful and thoughtful reading in the long run. That might be more of a high school type thing. But you see elements of it in the Classical Writing program meant for younger children.

Something similar is the way it is done in Traditional Logic. THis is more an approach for non-fiction, perhaps, but could be applied to literature. You read a chapter in entirety, then you go back and read carefully in little bits, one day at a time. This has worked well for my teenage son since you get an overview of the subject, then study it in detail; sort of like the SQR3 study technique. Mortimer Adler in "How to read a book" calls it inspectional reading for the survey, then something else, I think analytical reading, for the details, taking notes, and then finally you can generalize into synoptic reading where what you read in one area can be related to something you read somewhere else.

Another idea is to dwell on a great book throughout the years, seeing threads of how it appears in other books. My older kids read or listened to retellings of the Greek and Roman legends and histories starting at the primary level, so when we actually got to Homer and Plutarch, Herodotus etc they already had that culture in their mind and heart. The Ambleside curriculum has Shakespeare and Plutarch, the real thing, starting in 4th grade in small pieces once a week or so and Euclid weekly in secondary school as a supplement to the regular math program. You get the language and ideas from the earliest days, but in small pieces. I'm going to do that with my younger set.

For the ancient Greeks, Homer was the basis of their art, wisdom, imagination etc sort of like the Bible was for historical Christianity. . That enculturation takes time and a working through the developmental stages in a child's lifetime (at least so I think....). If a book is something you read in 3 weeks in high school, it's just not going to be a key influence in your life. ... Unless it inspires you to go back to it again by choice later, but usually in public high school at least, it's more of an inoculation effect where you never even want to see that book again . For example, my daughter last year in 8th grade was so stunned that the high school kids in her youth group not only thought Jane Eyre difficult reading, but thought it was boring. She was reading it for fun at the time and thought it was if anything, melodramatic, but certainly not boring, and not that hard either! But I imagine they were doing all sorts of literary circle activities and over-analyzing and testing comprehension to the point where it was ridiculous. Schools now are doing that even with fun reads -- even Harry Potter has lots of study guides online?? -- and I believe it can simply kill the book for the child. We don't want to dissect the book to show its little component parts like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, so much as we want to show how it reaches and expands into the universe (insofar as the book actually does so, which of course means reading the really good books).

With one of my other high schoolers,now in 10th, we've spent two years going through the Iliad and Aeneid. I read about 4 pages a day to him while he's drinking his hot cocoa in the morning, and that transitions us into the rest of the work for the day. It takes just a few minutes, gives him a good start on the day and gives us a "language" for conversation about other books he is reading -- tone, style, characters, themes, etc. We didn't really discuss it formally with Cliff Notes and the like, just tried to hear it and absorb it as the Greeks and Romans might have, as far as we could when it was in translation. So he had a whole year of the epics, not intensive but just THERE and ever-present. Obviously it was just an introduction, but suitable for a 9th grader and he won't be turned off for more intensive study in future. I think we're going to do Dante that way next year.

That brings me to another idea: I suppose reading the great books in the original language would be a natural way to do it "carefully", though none of my kids or I are there yet. You can't zip through the Aeneid if you are reading it in Latin, even if you are pretty good at Latin. It seems to me your memory works differently when you are reading something in a language which isn't your first. I'm so much more delighted and feel like I've dug out a treasure when I decipher an epigram or proverb in my Wheelock's, whereas they just slip right past my eye, pretty much, in English. Plus it really brings home how other cultures and ages respected truth and wisdom and excellent expression- there's a sort of natural "compare and contrast" going on there.

Anyway, I hope something in here helps! I would like any other ideas too! What I usually do in my homeschool is assign some books to be read slowly over the course of the term and then other books which can be read at the kids' own speed, and reread if they like. The slow books are usually way more difficult going, so they aren't as tempted to devour them. If it turns out that the book is a winner and the child spends the whole day living the Days of King Arthur or whatever, that book is logged in the "free reading" slot and I pick out another book for intensive reading. I suppose if someone devoured the Iliad or something I'd have them reread it a few years later and compare new insights with their earlier reading.

Now that brings up another principle of careful reading --- REREADING. I do that to compensate for my habit of devouring books. CS Lewis says that you haven't read a book until you've read it several times, at different stages of your life, and sometimes pick it up to browse over favorite passages while you're drinking your tea. The book becomes a companion, a mentor. You don't just DO books, ie listen to them once in your commute and then feel you are "done". It goes without saying that it would be a waste of time to do this book-living with light, fluffy books. I have to be honest though and say that a couple of my kids have practically memorized the Tintin comics because they read them almost every day at the lunch table. I keep meaning to hide the Tintins and start having them listen to audiotaped books instead but haven't gotten that in gear yet. Well, they do read pretty good stuff in addition, when they aren't eating lunch.

Are there Tintins in Latin?