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February 10, 2006

How to Read

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The London Times' Carol Sarler writes that any interest she might have had in reading great books was beaten out of her by over-pushy, over-serious schoolteachers. These days, she may be a professional writer, but she doesn't read many books at all.

I was luckier. Although my mom was rigid in many ways, where her kids and reading were concerned she was open and permissive. "It doesn't matter what they read so long as they're reading" -- that was her attitude. She got me reading very young and then set me loose. I read often, I read for fun, and I read in order to pursue my interests.

The whole "school is about books/books are about school" complex was never a problem for me. Neither was the tendency to see books as something sacred -- as something other than one medium among many. I'm perplexed by people who view books reverentially, and who see the reading of books as a kind of sacramental act: "Books are good for you. You must, you simply must, read books. If you don't, then you are failing."

Where does such an attitude come from? God forbid that a book should be merely fun, useful, or interesting. No, for these people the very act of handling a book confers ... Well, I don't know what exactly. But, where books are concerned, it sure does seem that some people can get awfully solemn.

How did you get hooked on reading? Do you feel any sense of moral obligation towards books?



posted by Michael at February 10, 2006


The physical object hasn't much value anymore. I used to frequent used book stores, and so didn't bend pages or break backs. I now read electronically.

But the content of the best books. Yeah. I revere them. Simply the greatest achievements of Western Man. Moby Dick is the Sistine Chapel, all of Beethoven's Symphonies, twenty Frank Lloyd Wright houses in a three pound package.

The Great Books may not redeem Auschwitz, but come close enough to get me thru another day.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 10, 2006 11:06 PM

Me too--on the love of reading started out on Golden Books, through the mysteries of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, to Poe, novels of depth, nonfiction of real blood and guts, and now back to the classics. I'm doing two to three at once, based on both learning and enjoyment. Aristotle & Steinbeck; Boethius & Faulkner; short stories because I'd like to consider myself a writer; and always, some how-to book on the side, whether it be computer innerds or software programs, or how to think or write. Oh yeah, and I try to keep a video narrative (game?) going too.

Posted by: susan on February 11, 2006 12:33 AM

I love to read. I revere books, and most of all I revere libraries, or as Ray Bradbury called them, the peoples university. I never particularly associated books with schools, but I do associate books with learning, with curiosity, with the delight of words at play. But I dont care if the book is a papyrus roll, a scroll, a folio, a book, or an etext. It is all about someone, somewhere reaching out to tell a tale or to express an idea, in the hopes that someone, somewhere, sometime might say, Yeah, I get it. I like it. Me, too!

My first reading was comic books, and every now and again I stop to offer a prayer of thanks to a couple of teachers who disdained comics and tried to insist that they were just trash. I learned that Superman was invulnerable from comic books while other kids in elementary school were reading See Spot run. And the pseudo-Shakespearean bombast of Marvel Comics ironically prepared me for the glories of iambic pentameter when I got to college. Who knew?

I never bothered with childrens literature. As soon as I got my library card, I wanted the good stuff, straight no chaser. Among the first novels I read were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Great Expectations (still old favorites), with excursions into sci fi (another genre disdained by my teachers) and mysteries.

And yeah, I think that people who dont read are dullards who are typically stuck in the rut of a narrow, uninformed opinion, and who actively fight off any attempt to broaden their horizon. Ya got to read somethin, even if it is only a newspaper or even a picture book.

Oh, yeah, books arent just about Western Civ. Try a little Book of 5 Rings, or The Mahabarata, and Kurosawas Throne of Blood is a mighty impressive samurai-interpretation of Macbeth. And of course, there would have been no Fistful of Dollars without Yojimbo, but possibly no Yojimbo without US hardboiled detective fiction.

Posted by: Alec on February 11, 2006 4:43 AM

Well, I like books because they smell nice while computers don't, but I'm afraid I'm in Ms. Sarler's boat as far as reading fiction is concerned. High-school English class got me into the lifelong habit of avoiding prose. Looking back, I don't think I ever read a single page of a single assigned book.

During my Modern Drama class, I ducked Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill. In Early American Literature, I skipped over Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Twain in a single bound. In Modern American Lit I managed to read not a single word of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson. I watched half a dozen Folger Library editions gather dust during my Shakespeare class, and heard some unconfirmed rumors about the existence a book called Wuthering Heights when I took The 19th Century English Novel. I finished my astounding career with Narrative Nonfiction, where I was assigned In Cold Blood, Hiroshima, and Black Boy. Assigned, mind you.

To this day I'm an avid avoider of all kinds of narrative prose. Whatever the author, whatever the genre, just give it to me and I'll pretend to have lost the book. One gets into the habit, you see.

I read nonfiction and watch movies.

(But wouldn't you know it - the other night I found my old Hemingway short story book and read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. And darn my socks, that guy could write! Who knew?)

Posted by: Brian on February 11, 2006 4:47 AM

Oh and another thing - in honor of TCM's Kubrick marathon last night, here's a quote from SK himself:

"I never learned anything at all in school, and didn't read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old."

I know the feeling.

Posted by: Brian on February 11, 2006 4:55 AM

I've been meaning to make a blog post on my favorite bookstores. I'm afraid there aren't that many.

Here are some:

Corner Bookstore, 93 & Madison, NYC
the OLD Blackwell's, Oxford, UK
Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL
Dedalo, Rome (architecture)
E Shaver Booksellers, Savannah, GA
London travel bookstore (name?)
Politics & Prose, Washington, DC (sort of)
Prairie Avenue, Chicago (architecture, sort of)
Montague Bookmart, Montague, MA
Taylor Books, Charleston, W Va
Waterstone's, Piccadilly, London
The Strand, NYC (18 miles of books)

used bookstores in New Orleans

Have you noticed that the zillion dollar houses in Architectural Disgust and House and Vogue never have books?

Posted by: john on February 11, 2006 10:58 AM

I should have added two bookstores in, of all places, Los Angeles:

Book Soup on Sunset and Hennesey & Ingalls, just off the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica (the best architecture bookstore I've been to)

Posted by: john on February 11, 2006 11:00 AM

Omnivory from the start: both parents were in journalism & PR, and I always (1) saw them reading and (2) heard them talking over their work and dissecting what was in newspapers, TV news etc. So I always felt tacit ownership rather than "print comes from someone/somewhere else."

I don't remember feeling much distinction between Pop and Worthy, e.g. between my father's weekly stack of rental-library mysteries and my mother's BotM Club Cheever, KA Porter, Tuchman, etc. They swapped the good 'uns both ways. So although my prep-Ivy years promoted The Canon, I never took it as anything more solemn than "pop that has lasted long enough to be presumed *very* good 'uns."

Posted by: Monte Davis on February 11, 2006 11:33 AM

Second susan on the love of Golden Book encyclopedias. I still have two volumes of the series that first showed me that there was a great big world out there chock full of the most wonderful, fascinating stuff. I still revere the Golden Books to this day.

And to Alec on comic books, esp. sixties Marvel comics. The fairy tales of my youth. And of course the wonderfully over-the-top vocabulary. My favourite from the memory vaults: the Mighty Thor battling Hercules and calling him a "blabbering blundering blustering buffoon." That's what I was reading at home. At school, Dick and Jane.

And like bob mcmanus, these days I do my reading electronically. It's the reading that I love, not the medium.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 11, 2006 12:40 PM

Bob -- I probably do 3/4ths of my reading these days at the computer. I certainly like some books as physical objects, but lordy a lot of them are too long. And where are the hotlinks? But I spoil easy ... As for reverence, it's interesting isn't it? What's life (especially cultural life) without reverence? But why revere the form of the container? Seems kinda sentimental. Worthy and nifty though it is, of course ...

Susan -- That sounds like a lovely (and rewarding) reading-progression. And how-to books ... Well, don't you think they're underappreciated? I sure do, the good ones anyway. What a nice service to do for other people.

Alec -- Comic books! Libraries! Skipping over 99% of children's lit! That's me too. Did we live the same life?

Brian -- That's some virtuoso assignment-skipping. You've got me thinking about how the lit-grinds looked to me in school, and how they look to me now ... These people who love doing assigned reading, and work hard to appreciate what the teacher tells them to appreciate ... I see a lot of that in the Times Book Review Section, and 'way too little rowdiness and enjoyment, let alone irreverence. And it's interesting too how TV and movies can do such a good job of fulfilling one's fiction-appetite. I find that to be the case too, though I still treat myself to the occasional novel and story ...

John -- Book Soup rocks. That's a lot of good bookstores, and good bookstores are places and experiences to be treasured, aren't they? Is there anything to be said from an architecture-urbanism p-o-v about them? Is there such a thing as a good bookstore in a modernist setting? I hope not.

Monte -- Having books and reading around as a simple matter of fact seems to count for a lot, doesn't it? Same with my family. Books, visits to he library, comic books and magazines, and people who enjoyed exploring them, without being too snobbish and uppity about doing so. I was always surprised to visit some friends' houses and discover that there was almost nothing to be read. Even the texture of family life in a non-reading household always seemed different. For one thing, there was always a TV on ....

Patrick H. -- "It's the reading I love, not the medium"... That's a great sentence. Can we frame it and put it on the walls of college lit departments?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 11, 2006 12:43 PM

Funnily enough, I remember learning to read as being very difficult, something like hitting my head against a wall. But then the breakthrough came and it's been off to the races ever since.
I don't know quite what the pleasure consists of. You dive into a book in a way that you can't dive into a computer screen. Part of the pleasure is that you can arrive at a semi-dream state reading a book; the book surrounds you, you fall into it.
Also, I can't imagine reading the equivalent of sixty or even one hundred pages of a novel, at a single stretch on a computer.

Posted by: ricpic on February 11, 2006 1:36 PM

My parents came from rural backgrounds, my dad from a homestead in South Dakota and my mom from an unintentionally nonprofit orchard in southern Oregon. They were both readers and had so little access to books that they treasured them. My father lined the house with bookshelves. "World's most expensive insulation," my mother said. Her world was transformed by "Tales of Genjii" when she was a kid. When she was dying in her late eighties, she begged me to find her books so absorbing and transporting. I couldn't. Neither could the librarian.

I can remember the moment I really learned to read. It was a school reader but not the Dick and Jane series. I don't remember the names of the sibs, but there was a parrot in the story. Suddenly, SHAZAM Open Sesame, I fell into their world. I was very young. It was raining outside (it was Portland, OR, out there) but in the book the sun was shining.

This little house in Montana has one long windowless wall that was part of the reason I bought it because it's perfect for bookshelves -- floor to ceiling, corner to corner and on around two more corners. I've packed these books into whiskey boxes and mailed them to myself from all over the US and I never want to pack them again. Some belonged to my parents. None is particularly valuable. Very little is fiction except the Montana books.

People around here are like people in my parents' childhoods. "Have you read all these books?" "No." "Then why do you keep them?" or

"Have you read all these books?" "Yes." "Then why do you keep them?"

When it comes to romance, they're a deal breaker. "Well," said the rancher, previously on the make, "I suppose we could pack 'em up and store 'em in the barn. Are they worth anything?" He meant money.

I think you can guess what they are worth to me. More than any rancher or his ranch either.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 11, 2006 3:04 PM

I got into books despite the California education system circa 1959. I've never been assessed for dyslexia, but I suspect one form of it is behind my difficulties learning to read via the 'whole word' method. So Mom taught me to read using phonics. One week I was struggling to read at the kindergarden level, the next I was reading first grade text. Haven't looked back since.

Mom was also a high school English teacher before she got married, and had gotten her bachelors in Biology. We had books around the house, and tough books too. Except for the ones with 'adult themes' I could try out most any bit of writing I cared to. So at age eight I was checking out a book of New Yorker Cartoons ("I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it."), at age nine I was going through Scientific American articles, and at age ten I read my first Andre Norton (Sioux Spaceman, aka Beastmaster).

My tastes are as not highbrow as you can get. I read the Greek myths because I wanted to. Far as I can see, Moby Dick is turgid crap. It was written to be important, and it suffers because of that. Maybe if I gave it a shot today.. But the literaslatterns who tout the stuff do such a good job of pushing people away from it you'd think they hate it.

And Shakespear as literature. The poetry I can see, but not the plays. Plays are to be performed, not read or recited. You want to introduce kids to Shakespear's plays, have them perform the works. And include the good stuff.

Folks, I haven't read any of his stuff, but I expect the 21st century version of Charles Dickens is going to be Elmore Leonard. That's the kind of writing that makes it on the literature lists in coming generations. Overwrought, over written, and endlessly entertaining. And what better way to punish the bastard by making sure nobody will want to read him in future generations?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on February 11, 2006 4:12 PM

At my school you were given a hard time not for reading too little, but for reading too much. Or rather, for reading at all. It was a philistine, brutish, soulless English boarding school. I remember my future housemaster, while showing my parents and myself around, boasting that boys who stayed indoors reading could expect to be bullied by his schoolmates. And he was right. They were. It was encouraged. If you wanted peace and quiet, you had to smuggle a book into the toilet, and read it there. Of course when you emerged you'd be accused of wanking. But that was okay; just as long as they didn't think you'd been reading.

Posted by: oldbillie on February 11, 2006 8:24 PM

Having a Russian Language and Literature Teacher for a mother has an advantage of learning regard and discipline towards books.

I still remember the order they were organized in the bookcase of my childhood: period fiction on one shelf, criticism of it directly below. Chronologically: Greeks on top, contemporary poets at the bottom. In my mind authors retain colors of their book spines: Moliere is coral-burgundy (a bleeding Pagliacci) while Alphonse Daudet is definitely grayish yellow, like alleys in Arle on sunny afternoon.

I solved the problem of assigned reading, when writer is dissected and tortured to death in endless analysis, by going thru the list beforehand, in the summer.
Miss Portnova would beg me not to raise my hand:
-I know you've read the book and have an opinion, but the class haven't. - Why didn't they then? I don't think Tolstoy meant what the textbook says. - Shhh...

Posted by: Tat on February 11, 2006 10:05 PM

Just to compare with one other popular media format, I find books more convenient than TV (I don't have a DVR): I can read what I want when I want to, leave off and pick back up anytime I feel. And the range of topics is incredible, which I just don't find on TV. (But I haven't tried very hard to find interesting things on the TV.)

Another thing: books have been around for how many hundreds of years? And TV has been around for, what, just over 50? There's bound to have been some more, er, quality developments in book-form than TV-form, if only because of the relative age of the medium. I find the content of television to lean more toward the trashy side, and though you can easily find just as (if not more) trashy books, the availability of something that engages your curiosity and challenges you to think from different perspectives seems much better in book-form.

I'm not sure I agree with the vague snob-appeal of reading over other entertainments, but I can say that I believe your brain is (generally) more actively engaged when reading than when watching TV. Sometimes that's a blessing, and sometimes when your brain is overworked, it's a curse. Other than that, I'm not sure there's anything inherently 'good for you' about books.

I started reading typical adolescent stuff as a little kid, and then moved onto some of the English-language classics when I was a teenager. I was never pressured to read or not to read; I just took to it, the same as I did with writing. In fact, I owe any facility I might have with the technical details of writing entirely to the stories I read as a little kid. The subject-matter may not have gone any further than Harriet the Spy or Reader's Digest, but they were decently edited and typeset, and I paid attention.

My school wasn't very hyper about assigning fiction to read. That's probably a good thing, because I got to 'discover' things like George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Sherwood Anderson, Truman Capote, &c ad nauseum, all on my own. If they'd been assigned, I probably would have gone out of my way to avoid them, like Brian. For that reason, I'm glad that I decided to forego an English Lit. degree, or it might've killed my desire to read.

I love books, but for their content, not their form. The one thing I will admit to is that I like to own nice, usually older editions (because the bindings seem better and the books are often teeny-tiny enough to be quite portable, have nice paper, nice leather covers, etc.) of very favourite books. I have one small shelf of these so far. I suppose you could liken it to having a DVD collection of favourite movies or series. I find I can't read much electronically. Too much eye-strain. And, not having a lap-top, I can't take my reading material to bed or, uh, other places where one might sit and read.

Otherwise, I read my books, then promptly sell them. Most often I use the library, which has graciously allowed me to have out 15+ books at any given time. I love the inter-library loan service, and I order all of my library books online. I suppose that makes me something of an addict. I still remember how excited I was to get my first library card at 11, because walking between those shelf-towers packed full of interesting stuff seemed heavenly. Still does.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on February 12, 2006 9:59 AM

John: That London travel bookstore is likely Stanford's on Long Acre, about three block northeast of Leicester Square. I go there for maps, of which they have zillions.

Books? Books? Why not worship maps!

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 12, 2006 10:44 AM

Peggy: "I love books, but for their content, not their form."

Maybe, but there is a lot to be said for form, too. (Bookporn alert!)

Donald: "Books? Books? Why not worship maps!"

That goes for maps, too. Unless you're satisfied by the two-inch square they give you at Mapquest. (Yeah they're interactive, but still...)

Posted by: Brian on February 12, 2006 7:42 PM

Both of my parents were avid readers, particularly my dad. We went "to the library" all the time---it was a family activity. It was just like breathing. My dad bought me the C.S. Lewis Narnia series of books for Christmas when I was 12.

Childhood? Pippi Longstocking, Gus the Firefly, and---dearly beloved---the "Sue Barton: Student Nurse" series, which I read over and over. And over. Also "Little Women".

It was the summer between seventh and eighth grade I first read "Gone With the Wind"---and discovered the word "fornication" for the first time, clueless as to its meaning.

But reading did in fact become less fun once I entered highschool lit. I just didn't dig a lot of it---Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Billy Budd", "A Separate Peace"---having to figure out the "climax" and the "denouement", like it was a math formula. Yawn.

Posted by: annette on February 13, 2006 10:46 AM

I didn't read a single book until I graduated from high school -- unless you count "Lassey Come Home" on which I wrote a book report in 10th grade. Also I sped read Moby Dick in 11th grade. Took about an hour. It was about a whale.

What turned me on to reading was Reed College. Once I was exposed to a lot of good books I kept going and never turned back. I spend several thousand dollars a year at Amazon. Even so, I don't treat my books with much respect. If they are to heavy to hold I rip them in half. Use 'em up, wear 'em out is my motto. And I throw or give them away almost as fast as I buy them, excepting only my most favorites (though I tend to "lend" them and never see them again). I think nothing of buying the same book twice, and I'll buy five if I want to press them on my friends. I always prefer paperbacks, or the cheapest version on

I am choosy. Or, as Oscar Wilde once said, my tastes are simple. I only like the very best. Hence I often lament that good books are hard to find. But I know they are out there, hundreds of them, and I go after them like a child after Easter Eggs.

Posted by: Lea Luke on February 15, 2006 12:49 AM

Posted by: s1gal bouton on March 6, 2006 6:00 AM

My pivotal reading experience was the many hours I spent roaming the stacks in the main library at my university--the direct result of discovering that no one took attendance in college.

I would wander up and down the aisles and pick out books that looked interesting, which led me across many titles and subjects that I would never have encountered in my courses. I discovered dozens of books that apparently got lost in the noise of publication. Many years later, I have begun to write about some of these books on my website:

I strongly recommend against anyone repeating my foraging in the stacks, though, if they have any interest in completing a degree on time--or in avoiding spending many more hours and dollars in bookstores later on.

Posted by: neglectedbooks on March 6, 2006 10:01 AM

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