On Reading

Imaging New Reading and Thinking Habits, a Few Ideas

(Or, How to Read, a strategy for people trying to stop skimming over ideas and start engaging with them)

  • Avoid reading the entire book, from cover to cover. Instead, pick a chapter or essay for focusing your thinking.
  • Read through once without taking notes, preferably in a comfortable chair.
  • Ask yourself: what troubles me, moves me, angers me, frustrates me about this reading? Why?
  • Underline those passages that bother or move you. Talk back to the text by writing your questions in the margins.
  • Pick one passage or idea that especially moves you (in anger, joy, confusion).
  • This could be a word, a sentence, a passage, a main theme. Spend a lot of time thinking about it. Ruminate.
  • Write about it. I like to write about it in a blog post. I find that the public nature of a blog encourages me to organize my thought more effectively and coherently. And, the less formal nature of the blog encourages me to work through and process my ideas. There’s an added bonus: it’s easier to access those thoughts later. I have to admit that my handwriting is so bad that sometimes I can’t read thoughts that I’ve written just minutes before.
  • Start by writing out what the author is claiming. Before troubling these claims, take them seriously by summarizing them. This summary should not include your judgment/assessment of the reading.
  • Connect your summary of your chosen passage or idea with the main argument of the text. I often do this by explaining the title of the reading.
  • Now write your reactions. Again, these are not judgments, but reactions.
  • Avoid overly objective, removed descriptions. Instead, use lots of “I” statements and spend considerable time thinking about how these ideas make you feel and why you are having resistance to them.
  • In your reactions, always draw upon specific examples from the text to support and contextualize your feelings and claims.
  • In your reactions, do not rush to judge (or convict, condemn) the reading or the author’s claims. Be generous and patient.
  • Develop some tentative conclusions, but keep working at it periodically until you can figure out why you are troubled or moved by the essay. This might take a long time; I’ve spent 16 years trying to figure out why one passage from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble moves me.
Why Read? Some reasons, other than acquiring facts and becoming a Success.
  • To Enter New Worlds
  • To Dream
  • To Recognize that Other Ways of Being are Possible (and already exist)
  • To Exercise Curiosity
  • To be Recognized
  • To Resist
  • To Escape
  • To Increase Understanding
  • Adventure!
  • To Retreat and Be Restored
  • To Witness Humanity
  • To Listen and Learn
  • To Be Challenged
  • To Light a Fire
  • To Encounter Mystery
  • To Solve a Mystery
  • To Relax
  • To Join in Ongoing Conversations
  • To Feel, To Laugh, To Cry
How to Read with Cone Dystrophy
  • Very slowly. It took almost 6 months to read Love in the Time of Cholera.
  • Take naps between words.
  • Stop looking, start listening to more audio books and podcasts. Learn how to study ideas with your ears instead of your eyes.
  • Choose wisely. Your brain can only handle so much. When it’s done, it’s done. Don’t waste it on a crappy book or terrible twitter threads.
  • Avoid densely packed prose, including the hundreds of scholarly books on your shelves from your academic career. Pick poetry instead, which is often dense but leaves space to breathe and offers an opening and a reprieve for overworked eyes.
  • Also avoid large print. You need print that can fit inside the small spot of central vision that remains.
  • Mostly read on a tablet. Reserve physical books for when it’s warm and sunny so you can sit outside and read in the sunlight.
  • Purchase a low vision light and always have it on the brightest setting.
On Mary Ruefle’s Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World

from a RUN! log entry on may 2, 2023

At the start of reading this lecture, I’d like to note my current relationship to reading and my deep belief in books: Reading with my diseased eyes is still possible, but difficult. And difficult to explain. It’s not that the words are so fuzzy or faint to be illegible. Mostly I can make them out, but the page and the words seem to be in constant motion, vibrating. Not quickly, but constantly. Or, is it my brain that’s vibrating? I can’t tell. What I can say with some certainty is that my experience of struggling to read with faltering eyes does not involve a harsh voice in my head sternly saying, I can’t read!, or a panicked voice muttering, i can’t read?, which is what I thought would happen if I were to lose my sight when I imagined such a horror as a kid playing a game of would you rather lose your vision or your hearing? Or maybe I thought I’d cry out, Pa! I can’t see!

No, struggling to read involves a lot of distractions and falling asleep mid-sentence and struggling to finish 400 page books within the 3 week check-out period from the local library. Unintentionally skipping entire lines, wanting to get lost in a good book but somehow managing to do anything and everything else instead — dishes, laundry, scrolling through instagram. Even as I wish I could read as much and as fast as I used to, I am grateful to have the small comfort of gradually easing into the loss, not having one single terrifying moment of recognition. Thank you, brain. 

I am in year 4 of the 5 that my eye doctor predicted I had before losing all of my central vision. A few cone cells right in the center of my central vision are holding on, diligently delivering data so that I can read Ruefle’s lecture or this entry. But, how well can I actually read this entry? Even as I try to proofread, I often leave out words or spell them wrong. When those cone cells die — is it certain that they will die? — will I finally have that moment of terrible recognition? Will it be like Ruefle describes when she woke up one morning and couldn’t read:

When I was forty-five years old, I woke up on an ordinary day, neither sunny or overcast, in the middle of the year, and I could no longer read….the words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I and loved and lived in but would never see again. 

(She concludes: “I needed reading glasses, but before I knew that, I was far far away.” In the margins of the book I wrote: drama bomb, which we — me, Scott, RJP, and FWA have been saying a lot lately.) I can’t know for sure, but I doubt that even if I do wake up tomorrow without being able to read the words on a page that this type of terror will seize me. Maybe one reason is that when I can’t read with my eyes, I can still read with my ears. I’ve spent the last 4 years building up my reading-as-listening skills. And there are so many amazing audio books available!

This is not to say that losing my ability to stare endlessly at words and understand them is not painful. It’s strange to walk by the bookshelves crammed full of all my wonderful books from grad school, filled with notes in the margins, and know they’re useless to me. Or to go to a bookstore, which used to be one of my favorite things to do, and hate — or maybe just strongly dislike — being there, unable to read the title of books unless I pick them up and slowly study them. It’s painful, but not tragic or a tragedy.