Jeffry C. Davis: Why Read Books at All?


The Problem With Books (Or Is It the Books?)

Before being able to "critique" a particular work of literature, you have to read it. This should be obvious. Yet many students who enroll in literature courses in fact do not read the assigned works. Why is this? Aside from occasionally having a bad day emotionally or having too much homework due in another class, the reason is simple: in an age when technological toys dazzle our senses with colors and sounds, and constantly call us to come and play, books--as well as the activity of reading them--seem boring. Books require dedication and discipline, two words that are not popular in our leisure-loving society.


What should a liberal arts college student be dedicated to? Well, while there is nothing wrong with getting good grades for work well done, serving the G.P.A. god is definitely a poor reason to study. Similarly, while most students want to please their parents with their performance in college, not even "parents" constitute the best reason to invest four years of hard work. And while a degree looks mighty nice on the wall, not to mention the job and cash it can provide, even that sheepskin is not the best reason for you to hit the books. The serious Christian liberal arts student dedicates him or herself to one thing primarily: learning how to become the person he or she was created to be, which in essence is learning how to become fully human. This is what "liberal arts" means: the form of education that teaches students how to be "liberal" (which actually means "free," although the word unfortunately has taken on some negative political and theological overtones) through the "arts" (or academic disciplines) that develop life skills and nurture God-given talents, all in an effort to provide graduates with a qualitatively better life.

How does liberal arts education free students to be who they were meant to be? While the answer involves several enriching elements, foundational to this kind of learning is a dedication to the practice of reading good literature. Historically, books are at the core of liberal arts education. The reason is simple: If you want to learn about yourself, learn about others--people both real and fictional. This way you can gain insight into their struggles, fears, longings, beliefs, habits, and relationships; then you can apply that insight as you make sound decisions for your own life.

Besides showing us other human beings, books inform us about the world. As Emily Dickinson says, "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away." Through the power of the imagination we are literally transported to another place without actually leaving the comforts of our own dorm. Whether it is Chaucer's medieval England, or Hugo's pre-revolutionary France, or Bradbury's futuristic America, the reader moves to a landscape that at first is unfamiliar, but in the end is usually quite familiar. This allows for geographic and cultural knowledge that costs far less than the price of an airplane ticket.

Even more, books raise questions, and questions require answers. What kinds of questions do books ask? They ask the age old questions that Homer and other Greeks asked before Christ came to embody the answers: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? These questions are still as valid today as they were thousands of years ago. As we ponder such questions, we attempt to provide meaningful answers, and these answers shape our lives and the way we will live them.

Sadly, many people, including liberal arts students, never become dedicated to the life-long process of discovering who they were meant to be. Many are unaware that such an endeavor is even important. Many are apathetic. Many are willfully caught in the web of materialism, the belief that argues for the acquirement of external "things," which is deemed more important than the development of internal reality. Even Christians, people who supposedly live according to the Book, seem to ignore Jesus' words in John 8:32: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." All truth is God's truth, including the truth about ourselves. Unfortunately, many people, including Christians, go to their graves without ever really experiencing the freedom of knowing who they are. Many get sidetracked into the empty pursuit of things that are not eternal, forgetting that they themselves are eternal creatures worth getting to know.

We truly are treasures unto ourselves, created by God to be carefully examined and appreciated for a lifetime. According to Arthur Holmes, distinguished Wheaton College Professor Emeritus of philosophy, "Sin occurs not when men enjoy created things, but when they misuse them" (The Idea of a Christian College 22). As children of God who were originally pronounced as being "good" by our Creator Himself, we should not "misuse" our lives by ignoring our lives. Even though we are sinners, and even because we are sinners, we must explore the inner depths of our beings, with Christ's help. Books--especially the Bible--mirror what is inside of us to ourselves. This is healthy! When we discover more of who we are, we can nurture our unique gifts and curb our not so unique fallenness, all by God's grace. This is what the Christian liberal arts student, more than anyone else, should be doing. Arthur Holmes continues: "The student must realize that his education is a Christian vocation, his prime calling from God for these years, that his education must be an act of love, of worship, of stewardship, a wholehearted response to God" (51).


If we accept this Christian liberal arts message--that our calling is to discover who God made us to be--and if we accept the fact that reading is central to the process of revealing truth about ourselves, the world, and God, then we had better make sure we know how to read effectively. Effective reading happens when you have the right attitude, environment, and approach.


This may seem like an obvious statement, but many students dread reading because they have never found it to be "fun." Students may logically argue: "If reading wasn't fun yesterday, chances are it won't be fun today." To this, the English teacher must confess, "You're right! It may not be fun." So, the first step is to get rid of old expectations you have about reading that you probably got from your fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Butalinski (she was the one who told you that liver tasted good if you ate enough of it). Reading, like most things, is "fun" maybe fifty percent of the time. The other fifty percent of the time it can be dry, difficult, and draining…for you…for English teachers…and even for Mrs. Butalinski. Keep in mind, reading Sports Illustrated will require a different attitude than reading a chemistry text or a political science journal. So, if you alter your expectations and change your attitude according to the reading material, reading won't be such a tremendous let-down.

Academic reading is usually hard work, if you are doing it right. Once we accept this, reading becomes less painful, less disappointing, more interesting, more useful (notice the author didn't write "more fun"). Reading takes effort: you have to be alert and force your eyes across a page, back and forth, back and forth, hundreds of times. It is tiring. It is brain-draining. It is tough on the eyes and neck. It requires concentration, recall, and synthesis. You can't zone out to the point that all of the sudden you find yourself drooling over the cookies you have been thinking of for the past two pages. And the reason you tend to fade away to those tropic beaches every time you open a book may be because you have not convinced yourself of one basic reading principle: Most reading takes concentration and effort, like it or not.

So what is the point of this little bubble-burst lecture? When you change your orientation from "reading is fun" to "reading is work," things become easier, paradoxically. The reader who has shifted her attitude now says, before she begins each assignment: "This is work. I can't be passive. The words aren't going to jump off the page and into my head. I've got to consciously engage the text to find meaning on each page." In this light, reading becomes a challenge, a challenge that the student can face and conquer.


With this proper attitude in place, now the student is prepared to change her reading habits. No longer can she lounge on the couch, feet up, stereo playing, and door wide open, letting in all of the commotion of the hall. This sort of approach kills comprehension and recall. The serious reader now knows the truth that B.F. Skinner discovered in his psychological studies: People are, to a greater or lesser degree, a product of their environment. Therefore, a student has to be smart enough to realize that if she wants to improve her reading skills, the solution is simple: Improve the environment. No longer can she simultaneously listen to alternative rock music and read a book. She has to be willing to change her ways, ways which seem "natural," but are actually detrimental.

Here are a few simple guidelines to improve your reading milieu:

  1. Sit in a chair that allows you an upright posture, with a desk or table in front of you. You may want to prop the book at an angle with another book underneath. (The goal is efficiency, not sleep-inducing comfort.)
  2. Make sure there is plenty of light illuminating the pages of the book so your eyes don't strain. (The more eye strain, the less brain energy, and less recall.)
  3. Be sure the room is quiet. Maybe you are the type that goes nuts with total silence, but try it. If it is maddening, then try the low hum of a fan or the soft music from an instrumental CD. (Lyrics distract you from concentration.)

Reading in this sort of modified environment might seem strange at first, but don't let this prevent you from getting used to it. You may be surprised how much it helps.


With the environment set, now it's time to try some new reading techniques. Like your habits concerning your reading environment, your habits in the reading process itself may need improvement. With the attitude that "reading is work" firmly established in your mind, actively try these techniques next time you read:

  1. Don't read when you are tired. If you do, you will only set yourself up for failure. (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.)
  2. Before you begin reading, tell yourself the following: "I will not zone out, but if by chance I do, I will not allow myself to go back to where I began zoning out to reread the passage again." Why not? Going back over material again and again wastes time, and even worse, encourages a bad habit. Exercise discipline over your mind--be the master--don't let yourself go back. If you feel you must, review the material again after you have finished all the pages.
  3. Just as you discipline yourself for work, discipline yourself for breaks. For every hour of reading, give yourself ten minutes of break time (no more!). This will motivate you to work hard so you can play hard later.
  4. Read with a pen or pencil (unless the book is not yours to mark, i.e. the library's). Note the names of characters. Mark the margin when an important action takes place. Pay attention to setting and any significant elements. Underline key words you don't know and look them up later. However, mark selectively, otherwise your marks will be so prevalent that they will defeat the purpose--of helping you to remember. You judge what seems important. When you mark in this manner, you make reading a more "active" endeavor, and this improves recall and prevents sleep.
  5. If you feel you read too slowly, run your finger or a pencil under each line at a pace that is a little faster than what your eyes are used to traveling. This may seem strange at first, but it is one of the best ways to increase speed and recall. Stay with the pace of your finger or pencil, even if you don't get the meaning of every word. Eventually your eyes will become trained to go at a faster speed. (Remember: Don't go back! If you really feel you are missing vital information, then go back over the material at the end of a chapter, not before.)
  6. If you are one of those who whispers each word as you read--STOP! This practice slows you down. Button the lips and let the brain do the work. Conserve energy.

The Final Result

After retraining yourself in all three areas--attitude, environment, and approach--you will improve your reading skills over time. Just be patient with yourself as you try these new approaches. Gradually your critical thinking skills will develop alongside your reading skills. Your brain will function at a higher cognitive level. This is exciting! Finally, let the procedure itself become the goal; turn it into a game of sorts. In this way, reading might become (dare I mention the word?) fun, but in ways that you never could have imagined before.

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