“How Do You Read A Book…?”

I was sitting one day in a McDonald’s while my children were attending AWANA at our church. As a people watcher, I am perhaps more sensitive than some to social cues that individuals give off, but certain postures seem unmistakable. I purchased my $1 fountain drink, filled it with Diet Coke, and assumed one such posture—I buried my face in a book with a pen and a highlighter sitting on the table in front of me. I did not lift my head, I made no eye contact on the way to my seat, and I did not lift my eyes from my laser focus on the pages in front of me. And yet, one man, apparently unaware of the most basic of social cues, thought that perhaps this was an invitation for a wise crack. He walked up to me, so close that even my laser-focused attention could not ignore him, and forced me to look up. As I did so he asked, “How do you read a book if you don’t know how to read a book?” He smiled a devilish smile, chuckled awkwardly at his joke, and was apparently satisfied with my mumbled attempt at a response with my jaw dropped to my chest, for he walked away without another word.

It took me a moment before I could regain my composure and figure out what in the world he was talking about. And then it hit me—there, pasted across the front of the book in big, bold letters, was the title: How to Read a Book. I now understood, but was still not amused. And yet, looking back on that moment now several years later (by the way, how is McDonald’s still selling fountain drinks for $1?!) I am forced to admit that the man, although clearly breaking all reasonable codes of conduct in interrupting my reading, was still nonetheless somewhat correct in his sarcastic questioning that reading a book about how to read a book was really a worthy endeavor.

And yet, I submit that a book is precisely the right method for teaching another how to read a book. Don’t we play a sport to learn better how to play a sport? Yet still, when learning to play a sport, we have a coach who can assess the quality of our play and help us improve. What students need is a reading coach, one who can work with them, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and help them improve. This year I have been spending more and more time in class with my students reading primary source materials out loud instead of assigning them reading for homework. This approach has permitted me the opportunity to model for them skills of reading. We look up the meaning of words we don’t know. We ask questions of what the author is saying and how it fits into his larger argument. We discuss strengths and weaknesses of the argument. And often we discuss other books that I, and sometimes the students, have read that can be brought to bear on the topic. In these in-class sessions, I am finding that we are putting into practice the four levels of reading that Adler discusses in How to Read a Book: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical.

In future posts I’ll look more in-depth at both Adler’s book and my own experience with this approach in the classroom. But in concluding this post, I think if that man were to interrupt my reading today, I would simply tell him it helps to have a coach—that is, I might say that if I could manage to utter the words with my mouth agape and my jaw dropped to my chest.

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