Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Makes a Good Reader?


And I have been thinking about this a lot since reading about Zadie Smith's essays exploring the subject. I have been interested in Smith since reading WHITE TEETH in the mid-nineties when I was blown away by it.

In her new book of essays (CHANGING MY MIND) she says she has backed off temporarily from writing fiction in the quest to become a better reader of it. A good reader, she says, is as important as a good writer. You can find more about it right here.

What makes a good reader? Right now, reading books at all is becoming rare. But in your opinion, what are your duties as a reader? If any? Do you owe the writer more than the money you spent in buying their book? Do good readers produce good writers? How do we make good readers?

27 comments:

Dorte H said...

Well, let me open the ball by thanking you for sharing the Zadie Smith article.

Personally, I am at least two different readers: the teacher of English literature who certainly owes the writer more than just leaning back & enjoying (or not) their stuff.

But I am also an avid reader of crime fiction, and on the whole I read this genre for sheer entertainment (as it is difficult for me to read e.g. Zadie Smith without analysis questions popping up in my mind all the time).

Then I am also a reviewer of crime fiction, and in that capacity I owe the writers plus the readers of my blog honest reviews so that at least my regular customers know what to expect from the book.

What else? Well, a good reader may not turn into a good writer, but I very much doubt that many bad readers can write prose very well.

Loren Eaton said...

Mortimer Adler wrote a whole book about this, but I would argue that the first and most-important thing a good reader needs to do is try to understand what the author wants to communicate through his writing.

Loren Eaton said...

Post Script: To put it another way, the good reader must recognize the primacy of authorial intent.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think a good reader, which I am not always, has to be open to various styles, subjects, opinions.

George said...

At the most basic level, the writer and the reader are partners in bringing the book to life. But, like many partnerships, things don't work out. The writer might write boring prose. The reader might get distracted by Everyday Life and fail to read the book. Given all that can go wrong, it's amazing when the partnership works.

Iren said...

I think being a good reader is like being good at many things. Actively participating, reaching beyond your comfort zone, knowing your limits, being willing to try something new or different, and being willing to fail.

Charles Gramlich said...

hum, I never thought much about this. I think I'm a good reader. LIke Dorte H said, I'm more than one type of reader. Definitely something to give some thought too. I know that I like to read what relatively few modern writers are writing.

Richard Robinson said...

Interesting question. I start by thinking about what a writer is and my answer is a storyteller. Okay, then in the oral tradition of storytelling, what is a good listener? Someone who stays quiet and listens to what is said, the nuance of voice and language. Someone who pays attention. But a good listener can also be a person who just enjoys hearing the story, without any analysis at all.

I guess that's how I think of reading: my eyes travel the lines of text, my mind engaged, and the story unfolds. So a good writer makes me a good reader by giving me a good experience and by providing some food for thought in the process.

There aren't as many People Who Read Books these days, and I don't think most of them are Readers. Those of us who are Readers - always have one or more books we're reading, always start another book as soon as we finish one, think about books, what we read, share our reading and opinions - are pretty much good readers by nature.

Deb said...

I'd say that in order to be a good reader you have to be a constant reader; that is, you have to read a lot of books in a lot of genres, fiction and non-fiction, classics and new publications, magazines and books, on-line/e-books and in print, etc. You have to have an open mind as you read, but you also have to bring your previous life & reading experience to the party (that's probably why the books we love as teens don't always age well).

That being said, if it isn't working out, it isn't working out. I usually give myself a 50-to-100 page litmus test. If the book hasn't grabbed me by then, I have to say, "life's too short" (and my tbr pile is too long) to joylessly and resentfully plow my way to the end. I give myself permission to give up and move on.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder how much patience enters into it. How often do you pick up a book out of your comfort zone? How often do you allow yourself to struggle to understand a book. My son just read a bio of Einstein where he had to work hard to follow the physics. I know I would have put it down or skipped those parts. My son is a good reader. I am not sure I am.

Rob Kitchin said...

The primary responsibility of a reader is, I think, to the reader not the writer (even when writing a review - in the sense that one has to be true to oneself). I'm not sure what constitutes a good reader at the personal level, though I can imagine what an English teacher thinks that might be, and what a writer hopes it might be. I like Sheila Hones take on reading (in a paper called 'Text as it Happens') in which she argues that reading is an unfolding event that is relational and contextual and therefore open to multiple interpretations and reactions. Perhaps a good reader is one that is open to such multiple interpretations, rather than simply trying to conform to what the author might have intended (and I don't believe that an author is fully cognisant or in control of their intention).

Mike Dennis said...

What makes a good reader? I know that in my case, my mother read to me when I was very, very young. She read to me every night, endlessly, transporting me to faraway lands and introducing me to impossible characters. Through this I (and she, too, I think) took temporary flight from the grim cityscape right outside our apartment window. When I could finally read for myself, I did so voraciously.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like that "reading is an unfolding event." I'm going to look for that article, Rob.
Mike-It's a sad day when a child no longer wants to be read to--when the desire to have the story to ones self overtakes the need to share it with someone else. I read to my children while they washed dishes until they were ten or so. I loved those times. I wonder if they did.

Rob Kitchin said...

Patti, it's at http://www.blackwell-compass.com/subject/geography/article_view?article_id=geco_articles_bpl143

I've emailed you the pdf

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Rob. Just downloaded it. I think my husband will enjoy it too.

Randy Johnson said...

I've not thought a lot on this subject. I like to read a great deal and on a wide variety of styles, genres, and authors. If I like something, I'm quick to promote it among friends, especially a new author I've discovered.

And a Happy New Year to you. Everyone out there.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Randy has brought up something interesting. Is it your duty as a reader to make other people aware of good books? Especially now with the decline of print reviews. Is the Internet the greatest source of new information about books, movies, etc.

Rob Kitchin said...

Apparently you should only recommend books to people like you, rather than people you like, otherwise you'll quickly gain the reputation as a book bore. Taste is a funny thing. I do promote books I like, but I'm learning to do it with people who share my taste in books. I don't see it as my duty though, just something that happens.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It is very hard to anticipate or predict literary tastes though. I have recommended books to my husband and he came away unimpressed. And vice versa. THE LITTLE STRANGER, a recent case. He did not see the charm.

K. A. Laity said...

Readers of novels have always been a small part of the population; more people are always going to be interested in things like bear-baiting or the modern equivalent. There were more readers in the past because there were fewer other entertainments. Reading take time and concentration.

"The good reader must recognize the primacy of authorial intent": I have a serious problem with this because 1) how do you know what it is? 2) writers lie for a living, so even if they tell you what their "intent" is, you can't trust them and 3) just because the author tells you what their intent is does NOT mean they're right about what the book will mean -- or that their intent has anything to do with how the book turned out.

"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms." -- Angela Carter

K. A. Laity said...

On the other side of things, what makes a good reader for me -- someone whose opinion I trust and listen to -- is someone who reads with a passionate interest and can speak articulately about what works and does not and why. But that is just for the self-serving gauge of my own writing.

Bad books should be thrown aside; life is too short. But your bad book may well be someone else's treasured friend. It's all fiat.

John McFetridge said...

I don't really know what makes a good reader but it's probably like any other relationship, so honesty plays a big part.

I did want to say something about this, "writers lie for a living," because I don't think it's true at all. The difference between a lie and a fiction should be clear.

Matt Rees, who writes crime novels about a Palestinian detective said recently that he went from being a journalist to being a fiction writer because he wanted to write the truth.

Ray said...

I think that it all goes hand in glove. To write, first you need to be able to read. Not the sort of skim the surface reading that some people do but get right down and dirty with the characters and the plot.
Some books you can't do that with - they are that bad. Almost like skim writing - as in skim reading.
Many modern books follow 'saleable' themes or hyped out of proportion and come along in brick sized volumes. But then I can remember a time when those sort of books weren't padded out. I'm thinking Irwin Shaw's 'The Young Lions' and Morton Thompson's 'Not As A Stranger' or Rona Jaffe's 'The Best Of Everything'.
I think that somewhere along the line something went out of kilter.
I find more enthusiasm from those who contribute to Friday's Forgotten Books strands. This is interesting as it is rare for anyone to bring up a book later than 1970/80. Does that say something about us as readers? That we read books that still live with us?
A Happy New Year to everybody.
And a Happy Birthday, Patti.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I think there is no "good" or "bad" or anything in reading. Who's to judge or set a criteria, for heaven's sake? According to whom? A label on reading?!? I read for myself and no one else --not even the author, it is out of their hands at that point -- and I enjoy every moment of it.

Lisa said...

Where have I been? I missed your birthday! Happy belated birthday. Well hmm. As you can imagine, I put a lot of thought and energy into reading and my reading choices have gotten progressively more difficult and challenging over the last couple of years. It has been tough at times, but very rewarding. The reading choices I've made have had the side benefit of sending me off to learn about other subjects that relate to the things I've been reading. I think what's made me a better reader over time has been setting appropriate expectations and being somewhat prepared when I come to a book. I always know what I'm getting into with every book so even if I don't fall in love with them all, I never feel like I'm reading a "bad book". I typically approach every book fairly analytically and I'm consciously examining what the author has done or has attempted to do. I like writing up notes as I go and highlighting notable passages so I can really get my thoughts coherent on what I thought of the book. By doing all of that, I'm pretty much a great big nerdy weirdo. ;)

kathe said...

Passionate attention; a willingness to let go.

pattinase (abbott) said...

YES!