How To Become A Better Reader

It's easy to fill your time with Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, checking email and glancing at news headlines. But sooner or later you yearn for the pleasure of a good book.
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It's easy to fill your time with Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, checking email and glancing at news headlines. But sooner or later you yearn for the pleasure of a good book. The Internet wants us to click every other minute from site to site. This habit can stand in the way of an older kind of reading, one that offers real pleasure and understanding: settling down with a book and getting to know it as well as you can.

Anyone can be a good reader, even in the Internet Age. Reading better means reading more slowly. The Net tells us to consume words in small, easy bites, as we dart from one webpage to another. But slow reading demands time and practice.

When you read, keep your sense of fun, but combine it with the ambition to experience books as deeply as you can. Make yourself ready for the serious delights that reading can offer: the unforgettable people and worlds that you can encounter nowhere else.

Here are some rules that will help you with slow reading. If you enjoy books but feel that there must be more to see, and say, about what you've read, these rules are for you. They will enable you to become a more able and careful reader, to know what to do better when you open a book.

We must be patient in order to let ourselves listen to a book, to be open to it, and to give ourselves the time to figure things out. Reading patiently means looking out for what's small and significant in a book: the details. "In reading, one should notice and fondle details," said Nabokov.

When you read a book, think of yourself as a detective looking for clues. What are the good leads? The best questions you can ask are ones that tie the parts of the book together: what does the beginning have to do with the ending? What are the most telling moments?

How does the author of your book speak to the reader? Jane Austen sounds respectable, but also sly and underhanded; she teases conventional belief, yet argues for it too. Dueling characters in a novel often have competing voices.

Writers sound very distinct from one another on the page. Through style, the author announces his or her inmost self. The labyrinthine Henry James couldn't be more different from the spare, uncanny Kafka.

How often do you look back to the beginning of a book after finishing it? Well, you ought to. The structure of a book tells you how it thinks, and openings and conclusions are the backbone of structure.

Signposts are key words, key images, key sentences or passages. Think of reading as a kind of travel: signposts help you map your journey. Works like Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" or Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" center on a signpost image.

Take the time to look up a few words that interest you, even if you already know their meaning, in a good unabridged dictionary like the American Heritage or, best of all, the Oxford English Dictionary. You will enrich your reading experience beyond measure.

Key words allow you to trace the argument of a book: justice in Plato, love and ambition in Stendhal, work in Robert Frost. Austen's titles let you know straight off what her key words will be: "Pride and Prejudice," "Persuasion", "Sense and Sensibility."

This is most challenging of the rules: press yourself to discover the fundamental question that animates an author. Imagine someone asking, "what does that book you're reading want to tell you?" and try to come up with the fullest, most interesting answer.

All too often, when we start reading, we decide quickly which characters we like and which we dislike, who's evil and who's good. But the truth is more complex: every good author wants to frustrate your desire for simple meaning, so that you will suspect your first reactions and find a deeper layer of meaning beneath those initial responses.

Try to understand how a book is organized, even if you've only read a few pages of it so far. Draw a mental map of the book's sections; see how it progresses from one phase to the next.

You'll find it helpful to jot down your impressions in the book's margins, or in a notebook. Even if you only do this a few times as you read a book, you can start a conversation with the author by summing up your reactions.

Revision is one of the writer's basic tools, but it's also useful for readers. Imagine how an author might have ended a work differently, or changed a crucial moment in the plot. You'll be thinking with the author, gaining insight into his or her decisions.

Every worthwhile book proposes a world of its own, and instigates a lively debate with other books. Homer's "Iliad" glorifies the heroes of the battlefield; Tolstoy's "War and Peace" gives a darker, more doubtful picture of them. Measuring one great author against another will enlarge your reading of both.

David Mikics is the author of the new book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.

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