Be Superficial (When it Comes to Reading): How to Make a First Reading of a Book

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Try not to think of reading as simply uploading data, because if you think this way reading will always seem too slow. Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Kindle loc 946.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”  Bacon, Francis. Of Studies … San Francisco, 1928. Print.

“[A] first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter, and we are usually in error to make it a final one.” (Jacobs loc 1681)

“You don’t read for understanding, you read for excitement. Understanding is a product of excitement.” Marvin Mudrick from Dirda, Michael. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. Print.

This article is about how to make a superficial reading or first reading of a book you’ve only just encountered. Read the first time for pleasure, don’t worry about misunderstandings, and if necessary you can always read it again for deeper understanding.

Reading a difficult book for the first time means you will miss beautiful language or wonderful dialogue between characters. You may even miss words’ meanings or references to places or predecessors’ books. Commit to a reading without stopping to look-up or ponder the people, places, and things you do not understand right away. Commit to a first reading without worrying whether you “get it.” Instead, absorb the story. Commit to the story and characters emotionally.

You’ve probably never been taught to read superficially. Instead, teachers preached about dictionaries and you probably resorted to study guides to force feed meaning. Reading with constant interruption is not proper for a first reading. Studying to get through a test is not a leisure activity you will come back to daily. 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. p. 36. Break away from your schoolgirl mentality. Reading and studying are not the same. Some of you stopped reading for this reason. You equate reading with studying. Studying is labor. I want you to get caught up in the art of reading. Since reading for pleasure isn’t taught it will take practice to learn to read this way. Make a concentrated effort to read a book with no ulterior motive. Fight your urge to study it, for now.

I hear you saying, “you mean you expect me to read this book twice?” Remember the goal. Consuming book after book is not it. I am challenging you to commit to a lifetime filled with pleasurable reading. To commit, you must first realize  a book may take more than one reading. Huge point! You will hear great readers echoing this as they scream it in empty hypothetical libraries.

Ok, I decided to commit to a first reading. How fast should I read

Over time you will learn to vary your reading speed according to the degree of understanding in your sights and according to the material’s difficulty. With a superficial reading or first reading, read as fast or as slow as you can without stress. Use a first reading as quiet contemplative time. The reading highway doesn’t display a minimum speed sign. There’s no universally right speed. Exercise freedom and find your comfort level. Do not read as fast as you possibly can. Instead, learn to read at the appropriate speed given the circumstance and read fast when you can and slow when you want or must.

Why should I plan to come back to a book at all?

First, an introduction to a man named Seneca. Born around Jesus’ time, according to most historical accounts, Seneca suffered from severe asthma. This meant he spent time with books and philosophical thought.  Despite his sickly nature, Seneca became wealthy and rose to political power. Much of Seneca’s work is designed to explain his position on wealth and to establish a recommendation as to how to behave toward wealth. Seneca advocated Stoicism.  At its heart, Stoicism is a practical philosophy which emphasizes the importance of an individual’s action as opposed to a focus on his words.

Seneca interests us because he encouraged studying one wonderful book intensely. He thought you could get more from approaching one book wholeheartedly than you can from skimming the surface in both thought and effort with many books.  Seneca viewed interaction with books the way the best readers do. I want to introduce you to the idea here, but we will come back to this. To Seneca, wisdom does not necessarily come from the book alone but from your own thoughts about the book truly expressed.

Ready access to numerous titles at bookstores, libraries, and even instant online access and purchase power makes books more accessible today than ever before.  Google, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon all make books available for free online.  Habitual consumption is an easy trap to fall into. You are the proverbial “kid in the candy store!”

Seneca says, we should make ourselves a great author’s true student and then spend energy on creative reading rather than the consumptive pursuit of the next book you get your hands on.

Committing to re-reading books is mandatory to come to the understanding Seneca recommends. Re-reading will appear again and again as we consider the world’s great readers’ advice. For now, allow a book to sweep you off your feet and carry you where it wants. React to a book as a feather reacts to the wind. Read knowing pop quizzes are yesterday’s news.