Start a Reading List or Remain Listless

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“[A] list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or give hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.” Sissman from Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Kindle loc 1696.

“Systematic reading is of little help. Following an official book list, may, by chance, throw up a useful name, as long as we bear in mind the motives behind the lists. But the best guides, I believe, are the reader’s whims….” Manguel, Alberto. A Reader on Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Kindle loc 217.

For some reading purists, lists are shit and you should read for pure pleasure. I look at lists like a road map, not a tally sheet. A “have read” list gives you reading sense, like a compass might with direction, and can inspire new reading suggestions. A “to read” list assures there’s reading material waiting in the pipeline. Don’t let me confuse you, the list is not a mandate. I can promise you will never find yourself without something to read next if you create a list. Understand though, you should always read for interest, in the moment, to ensure enjoyment.

I used to live trying to remember it all.  As I get older, I realize my memory is far from perfect. I do not want my memory to disappear, but I expect decline. I credit Total Recall  for giving me the idea to create a book list. Bell, C. Gordon., and Jim Gemmell. Total Recall: How the E-memory Revolution Will Change Everything. New York: Dutton, 2009. Print. Life gets more digital daily. As Mr. Bell and Mr. Gemmell correctly conclude, our ability to save and store unlimited information, including digital video, for future use will mean total recall.  So how does this idea apply to a book list?

I recommend you start a note-taking system if for no other reason than to allow your family and friends to see your reading experience.

I use Evernote so I can get to the list anywhere I access the internet. At year-end and year beginning I look back and reflect on the books I read and make a plan for the coming year. I can’t remember as well as I used to and I find reflection easier with a list’s guidance. I don’t use the list as a syllabus to structure the books I must read in the new year. I keep the list for myself alone so it looks ugly.

You might decide to keep a reading calendar instead. I wish I started keeping a calendar earlier. I could have used it as a task organizer and to-do list, but also as a diary. Google calendar gives you this ability. On a day ten years down the road you will want this information and be unable to recall it on your own. Could you write down the book’s title on a calendar? Google calendar’s search function means if you consistently use a key in the event title like [reading list] or even [RL] you can search for the unique character set and generate a list from your calendar.

Even remembering the book’s title can bring back the book’s grip and potentially a crucial idea you took from the book. You can experience the initial reading again before you decide to re-read. Today we read from so many sources like the library, Kindle, and physical book stores, remembering means doing more than looking up at your bookshelf from your chair.

What will you value enough to want to pass it on to your relatives? I think as you get older you will find value the knowledge and experience you acquired the most. You can use a list to share to share your reading experience instantly, and the minute you learn a lesson you can pass on,you will find yourself truly inspired. If you’re list allows you to connect with a niece or nephew or son or daughter then it is worthwhile. Let this project be your first practice creating a digital legacy.

Start a reading list using Evernote or Google Calendar to catalogue your reading. Make one list books you “have read” and one list books you want “to read.” Throughout these lessons I may offer options. Pause. Think about your preference. If a reader insists they possess the reading holy grail, another reader is shouting contradictory instruction over their shoulder. Let preference guide you. List? No list? Evernote? Google Calendar? Something else? Decide what works for you.

Skimming the Surface

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“To be succesful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim but it becomes essential to skim well.” Shreeharsh Kelkar taken from Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Kindle, loc 1459.

“I learned at a very early age that unless you are reading for some purpose other than pleasure you can safely skim over difficult quagmires, cut your way through tangled jungles, skip the solemn and boring lowlands, and simply let yourself be carried by the vigorous stream of the tale.” Manguel, Alberto. A Reader on Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Kindle, loc 127.

According to my dictionary, the word skim comes from the word scum. If I wanted I could play with words and suggest skimming the surface detects scum sitting on the surface.  As appetizing as I find the relationship I prefer to stop my etymological analysis at “skimming the surface,” barely touching the substance beneath. Suffice it to say the ways to approach a book differ depending on the level of understanding you want to achieve. Even a brilliant reader doesn’t roll through Finnegan’s Wake without having to pause and reflect. On the other hand, most adults could probably read Pinnochio and understand the basic plot.

Adler and Van Doren describe four basic approaches to reading, each requiring a different time commitment and all producing a different understanding (Adler and Van Doren 16). Consider the four approaches: (1) Elementary Reading; (2) Inspectional Reading; (3) Analytical Reading; (4) Syntopical Reading (Adler and Van Doren 17-19). We will progress to Syntopical reading assuming Elementary reading mastery as our starting point. If this all sounds like a foreign language, don’t worry. We will take each step at a time and its not as complicated as it sounds.

Systematic Skimming, Pre-Reading, or Inspectional Reading (All names meaning the same)

Skimming is a methodical way to learn the most information about a book given a limited time commitment. From there you can decide if you want to spend anymore time with it. Skimming involves asking yourself questions to get the book’s gist while understanding some books will reveal more from a thorough reading.

Do you even want to read the book?

Why do you think you want to read the book?

Look at the title page and preface.

What’s the book’s type and do others cover the same subject?

Look at the table of contents.

Ask yourself the same questions again?

Do I want to read this book?

Why do I want to read this book?

Read the blurb (the publisher’s summary on the book’s back or on the book’s jacket).

Which chapter piques your curiosity or seems important to explain why you want to read the book?

Read the summary paragraph for the chapter, if possible.

Randomly select two other paragraphs to scan.

Brave and willing to risk spoiling the ending? Read the book’s last two pages.

(Adler and Van Doren 32)

You can perform this work mentally and with practice you won’t even find it necessary to refer back to these questions.  You probably already skim to a degree every time you go to the bookstore, but doing this systematically allows you to efficiently make an introduction to the book. For reference, at the grocery store shoppers skip to the back label for the information conveniently condensed there and make a purchase decision. There are no nutritional labels on books and book publishers sometimes lie on the blurbs. To keep them honest make an inspectional reading.

I skim to find out if I want to read the book. Bookstores and libraries expose you to books you can skim. Technologies like also offer to deliver free samples to your Kindle. With the samples you can skim a book’s table of contents and the first thirty or so pages lying on your couch.

Find a familiar book and skim it or find a new interesting looking book and skim it by asking the series of questions above. Write down one thing you learned from skimming the book you didn’t know about the book before you skimmed it. Write down two questions skimming the book brought to mind. Follow this process with any new book. Expect to ask more questions while skimming than you answer.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. For me, memory lane leads to a cul-de-sac with Paulsen’s Hatchet at the dead-end. I  read it as an adult and I still enjoy it, but as a child I remember wanting to live it. I even convinced my parents to buy a hatchet from a campground gift shop. I acted out the adventure, stranded with only the hatchet to survive. Silly, I know, but the book cast its spell. Paulsen set out with a simple motivation, write a page turning story. The story worked on me. Brian Robeson narrates. Faced with divorcing parents, initially, the book progresses and a survival tale engulfs the domestic anxiety. Brian’s pilot’s heart seizes up, the plane goes down, and Brian survives alone for many days. Brian’s mistakes could have killed him. Instead, combined luck, brilliance, and patience keep him alive. His survival spawns new confidence.

I enjoyed reading Hatchet because I identified with Brian. We shared an approximate age and affinity for the outdoors and the independence it represented. I liked hatchets and possessed the desire to test myself with it. There the similarities ended, but the book’s grip hardened like cement. I offer advice forged in my experience with Hatchet. Identify fearlessly with a core character or idea. Reading for entertainment requires feather-like reflexes. Literary critics can’t risk getting swept away, but for a reader, like yourself, you live for the experience of floating like a feather in the narrative.Come up with a book related memory. Were you reading? Were you being read to? Maybe someone recited a story or poem from memory?

It’s time to wake up the memory if you have one. If not, read on.

No pleasant reading memory? You can develop a pleasant reading memory with a little effort. Troubled because you think you just don’t like to read? Relax, you can blame your childhood if you want.  An adult pressuring you into reading may have accidentally inhibited your reading progress. A child forced into reading before they are ready may carry over her dislike for the experience into later school work and even into adult life. Adler, Mortimer J., and Doren Charles. Van. How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Print, 24. This means you are excused from your reading past. Now, commit to plod forward.

Apprehension toward reading shouldn’t last forever. You can retrain your brain.The brain isn’t a hard-wired circuit board, it’s more akin to moldable plastic. For our purposes, neuroplasticity means we can strengthen through repetition of physical or mental activity into a habit. For all the mental flexibility we can end up locking ourselves into rigid behavior, even negative behaviors. 14. Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011, Kindle loc 1349.  Just as easily as we create negative rigid behavior, though, we can create new positive rigid behavior through consistent practice. No matter your reading past, your brain physically changes after weeks of reading. You can actually re-wire your brain to make reading every day easier if you consistently practice.

Have you ever enjoyed reading a book? Ever lost time while reading? Write down the name of the book and the author in your journal or Evernote. Share the name of the book in the comments if you prefer. Whether you have ever enjoyed reading a book or not commit to a regular reading plan you design. Can you read 10 pages a day for two weeks? Remember to read them slowly, with a pencil, and ask questions as you read.

The 14th reading day will be easier than the first week as you mold positive rigid behavior.

Photo: Some rights reserved by ajvin.

Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of You, the Reader.

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

The hardest step is committing to the habit. Just like running a marathon, you will need to mentally prepare to accomplish your reading goal. To ease into the habit try starting with a simple initial goal. Set a goal of reading for five minutes or for five pages. Make the goal so small that you will consider yourself foolish and lazy if you don’t find the time to get the reading done. Also, start calling yourself a reader. Tweet about reading and mention me @readlearnwrite and we’ll get a conversation about reading going. I’d love to hear of your reading exploits.

Around 1954 a psychologist named Julian B. Rotter studied a variable called “internal locus of control.” Having a high internal locus of control means you think you control your own life.  He studied it for years and published a study along these lines. Rotter, J.B. (1966). “Generalized expectancies of internal versus external control of reinforcements”. Psychological Monographs 80 (609).  He found the higher your internal locus of control, the more you control your behavior. If you think you can control your life then you can more easily actually control your life. So, flip the internal switch to reader. The switch is more important than any other step you will take. You are a reading architect. Only two obstacles keep you from becoming a reader: (1) a physical disability (and even most disabilities overcome these days) or (2) your own negative attitude toward reading. You should work to develop an internal locus of control with regard to reading. You control your own reading destiny.

Who: Who do you want to learn from? What do you want to master? What do you want your reading to enable?  Define your reading goals. What will you look like as a reader in a year? Will you read every day? Will you read all you want? Start to think about your reading goals. You should even consider introducing yourself to a friend or family member as a reader.  Identify yourself to others as a reader to strengthen your internal locus of control.

What: What do you want to read? Sure, you read blogs, you’re reading this one, but your insides stir with a substantive reading goal. What brought you to this point? To read better, but in what way? Do you want to learn to read with more depth and value? A goal exists. Write it down and make it concrete.  Buy a journal or scrounge one up from the storage bin and take notes as you work through this guide.  What reading equipment might you need? Would it help to go out and buy a tool to use to identify yourself as a reader?

I suspect your note taking habits will change over time. Embrace the learning process and adapt as you go.

Where: Where can you read comfortably? What room or chair works best? Do you read better with noise reduction head phones? Can you read supine without falling asleep? Use this community, or at least, use me (, as your reading support system.

When: When do you read? Every day–for life–you should read. What if you only read 10 pages a day for the next 365 days? You will read 3,650 pages you didn’t read last year.  You will want to do much more after a month. For now, though, do you read in the morning or evening? Give it some thought. When would you give the book your full attention? Do not focus on speed. Read as slow as you can tolerate. When can you read without the world pushing you another direction?

Why: The fates drove you to this point. They want you to read about them. You found this blog. An attractive cosmic rule is in effect. Don’t fight the urge. Why do you want to read?

How: How do I become a better reader? Check back at least once a week and you’ll get some new ideas or some new motivation. Come back for renewal on a daily basis if you will benefit. Use the blog as positive reinforcement or a kickstart. Use me for reinforcement if that suits you:

Start to define yourself as a reader. Answer the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of You, the Reader, on your own. Journal your definition. Design your future reading self.  Ask for support when you need it. Everyone here wants to help because we want you to be part of our discussion about reading when you’re ready.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Read.Learn.Write

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Who: Without some restraint, I tend to devour books. Since starting this site I’ve managed to slow down, read with a pencil, and make notes. I’ve learned a lot from running the site. But, I wasn’t always that way. I went to law school and after law school I lost the ability to read for pleasure. So, my involvement with the site keeps me honest. It’s a way to be involved in the day-to-day conversation about books. I’m the founder-in-fact of the site, but the real contributions here have come from across the world. You’ll notice a revolving door of readers willing to share their experiences in an essay or comment here. For that, I am grateful. If you want to talk about a book you can always reach me at

What: I decided to start reading seriously about four years ago, not for school, not for work, but to expose myself to new ideas. Then I realized I actually liked reading. I want you to want to read as well.  If you read this site looking for contradictions, you’re going to find them. That’s by design. I like to present multiple sides of the story. Further, the contributions on this site come from a number of regular readers–all across the world, in fact. What you’ll find is that to some of the hard questions about reading, there is no right answer, there is only the answer that works for you.

My suggestion is to read the content here and think about it. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Did you read the message and give it a fair chance? Do you understand the message? Does the message raise any questions? Ask as many questions as you can, but don’t read this site looking for some scientific or final logical argument about reading.

The only thing that matters to me is that you find what works for you.

I will not tell you what to read or walk you through Western Literature’s canonical works. I don’t prescribe reading. You should, instead, work through this site as a supplement while also reading for pleasure  at your convenience.

Relax. There will be no tests.

Where: The location,

When: You should read something every day. Even if all you can spare is five minutes to read a short poem. Even if all you can find the time to do is read a children’s book to your kids before they go to sleep.

Why Read: You can read my reasons here.

I do not intend to go back and teach you how to read on this site. I will leave basic reading instruction to the educators with the proper credentials. Instead, I hope to go much deeper and teach you how to make reading a lifetime adventure.

A college degree used to mean reading competence. A college degree used to mean you could read any material for general readers and undertake independent research on almost any subject.  What does a college degree mean today?  I went to college. My professors exposed me to books I still consider favorites today. Even with those, though, we could only dig so deep.

No college reading program takes you far enough. The challenge renews each time you carry over concepts and compare different writers’ views on the same subject. Make your goal to continue in this way for life.

How:  Start reading. You can incorporate the articles on this site into your reading. Keep reading. What might you like to read? Find a book to try out. The rules of adult life dictate you can read whatever you want, but if you have no place to start, these books (the following links are referral links and site gets a few pennies if you purchase these books using these links) helped me understand the art of reading. I owe these books gratitude:

1.   Adler, Mortimer J., and Doren Charles. Van. How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Print.

2.   Aristotle, and D. W. Lucas. Poetics. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1972. Print.

3.   Edmundson, Mark. Why Read? New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print.

4.   Calvino, Italo. Why Read the Classics? London: Vintage, 2000. Print.

5.   Sire, James W. How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension. Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw, 1989. Print.

6.   Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Touchstone, 2001. Print.

7.   Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live, Or, a Life of Montaigne : in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other, 2010. Print.

8.   Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Loves Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York, NY: Harperperennial, 2007. Print

9.   Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Harper, 2003. Print.

10. Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006. Print.

11. Fish, Stanley Eugene. How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.

12. Culler, Jonathan D. Literary Theory. New York: Sterling, 2009. Print.

13. Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch, 2010. Print.

14. Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

15. Manguel, Alberto. A Reader on Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

16. Conroy, Pat, and Wendell Minor. My Reading Life. New York: Nan A. Telese, 2010. Print.

17. Bacon, Francis. Of Studies … San Francisco, 1928. Print.

18. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus., and Robin Campbell. Letters from a Stoic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. Print.

19. Dirda, Michael. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. Print.

If you’re not satisfied with this list, email me at and we’ll find something. Hell, I’ll even read it with you if you want.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.