Learning to Read

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I come from a long line of readers. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Papa Jay, read about a book a day and was known for buying several copies of his favorites to give away to anyone who might show the slightest bit of interest. My grandmother, Mimi, is to be commended for her support of this relatively expensive habit, wisely noting it was preferable that he spend money on books rather than liquor or other women. 

My parents also instilled a love of reading — not so much as habit but rather necessity. On one notable 3-week vacation my freshman year of high school my dad enforced a strict luggage policy for me and my three sisters, directing us to pack only one backpack full of clothes and another with only books. Incidentally, I recall nothing of my reading from that trip, though I remember thinking it unconscionable to try and live with just one sundress. However, I clearly remember my dad lugging Shelby Foote’s legendary 3,000-page Civil War trilogy with him on trains, planes, and boats for weeks at a time thinking surely he never would finish that thing, which, of course, he eventually did. 

All of that to say, I inherited bookishness in ample measure. But even with the advantage of a nerdy heritage, it took me years to learn that reading well is quite a different thing than simply reading much. It has taken time for me to understand the difference between a popular book and a book worthy of my attention, though on rare occasion they are the same. And it has taken practice to figure out the tools and resources I can rely on so that in the midst of my life with four young children and part-time work I can still manage to find titles that expand and enrich my world in the best ways. In short, reading well is purely pragmatic for me, to ensure the precious little time I have for reading is used well. Like any matter of taste, reading well is an exercise in preference, but as I consider the discovery of most of my favorite and abiding titles, I find that each one either came from following a strong writer, mimicking a good reader, or trusting a well-regarded “leader.” And, more often than not, the best of the best cross-check against all three! 

Follow Strong Writers 

I first learned how to follow strong writers by watching my husband bumble around used bookshops during our dating years. All the years before I met and fell in love with this charming bibliophile, I browsed titles by reading the back cover, scanning the table of contents or chapter list, and maybe reading a page or two. However, watching this fascinating new person shop, I noticed he always flipped to the back of a book first, wholly ignoring the summary bits. Intrigued, I started watching more closely. Soon, I discovered he was reading the bibliography.

It is worth noting that for most of my life, and certainly all of my high school English classes, I hated bibliographies like I hate mayonnaise — a widely accepted complement to serious writing, which I happen to find perfectly dreadful. Still, what my husband finally taught me by his example is that the bibliography is the cipher of good books. If you pay attention to who a writer cites in the bibliography it will not only shed light on the book itself — where it came from, where it is going — but it will provide a lovely treasure map full of clues to discover more literary gold. It is a bibliography that first led me to mystic/philosopher Simone Weil, to the Greek Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, to the winsome storyteller and compelling essayist Wendell Berry, and to Catholic poet and writer Kathleen Norris. 

Likewise, I have a handful of writers who have earned my trust so sufficiently that I will read, quite literally, anything they endorse and/or mention in passing. For instance, Marilynne Robinson has led me to Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, as well as all of the stunning work by Christian Wiman — My Bright Abyss not least among them. Paying attention to whom the best writers read is great fun, actually. And while contemporary writers will often drop names or share titles in a magazine interview or radio spot, those who have passed on from this life still leave clearly demarcated trails leading to read-worthy peers. Graham Greene was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, for example, so reading their work in tandem can be an engrossing exercise in perspective on a common age. Likewise with J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers. Last fall an acquaintance pointed me toward Michel de Montaigne, the father of the modern essay format, and when I started hunting for his work I happily discovered a book titled Shakespeare’s Montaigne, an English translation of the original French named as such because it reflects the version Shakespeare himself read in his day, as noted by references to Montaigne’s work in The Tempest and elsewhere.   

Treats like this are never ending once someone starts on the path of a strong writer’s trail. So a staple on our bookshelves at home is Eugene Peterson’s now hard-to-find book Take and Read: Spiritual Reading — An Annotated List, which is exactly that. It is a book of Peterson’s favorite reads formatted as a list with a few lines of description below each title, organized by topic such as Classics, the Psalms, Poets, Novelists, Sin and the Devil, Place, and more than a dozen other fascinating topics. It packs a lifetime of worthy reading into a slim volume and, I might add, makes for a great gift reference when holidays roll around. A similar treasure vault of interestingness is the one and only Brain Pickings, which further indulges this fruitful habit of stalking great writer’s reads (like this delightful post on Joan Didion’s favorite novels of all time). I mean, please. Stop. It’s too much, really. 

Mimic Good Readers 

Second to following strong writers, one of the next best habits I have stumbled upon over the years is paying attention to other readers. When I first moved to Washington from Colorado, I lived with a wonderful family who put me up for nine months as part of a fellowship I did through our church. Their house was always immaculate and well-ordered because of an amazing gift the mom had for keeping things tidy and comfortable all at the same time, save for one little room at the top of the house where the dad kept his books stacked in piles on shelves and desks and small tables. For the many months I lived with this remarkable, life-giving family, I longed to know more about what books captured the attention of this man who had captured mine by his kindness, intellect, and generosity. 

Over the years that instinct has served me well. That man, an attorney who has done much of his work in Eastern Europe, turned me on to many of the Russian writers I was assigned in high school but had until then only skimmed. He told me about the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, a husband-wife team of brilliance that makes these and several other Russian classics imminently readable. He also told me about G. K. Chesterton and John Stott. 

My husband, a good reader is his own right, has likewise turned me on to countless treasures from Graham Greene to Nicole Krauss, George Eliot, Mark Helprin, Elie Wiesel, and others. My good friend and colleague Steven Garber taught a seminary class I took more than a decade ago where he taught Vaclav Havel, Walker Percy, Chaim Potok, and others. Reading trusted reviewers also fits this camp. Just this past month my good friend Laura, widely-read as anyone, put yet another book in my hands at just the right moment, and I am quite certain it will forever mark my life. Eight years ago, she shared The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris when we were both nurturing our firstborn girls. The latest book is The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by a French Dominican priest from the 1920s, A. G. Sertillanges. Watching and copying other readers I trust has led to many exciting discoveries along the way, so I am always keeping watch for new readers to imitate. 

Trust the Leaders

Finally, while I am generally loathe to take any book recommendation at random, or from contemporary sources that tend to relish scandal and intrigue more than well-crafted prose or thoughtful reflection on the human condition, I do make exception in one regard. I will generally heed the collective wisdom award-winning books represent. 

Years ago my older sister Meg took up the habit of reading every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel dating back to the first one in 1917, adding a new one each year. Skeptical at first, I began to pay attention to the Pulitzers myself to see what was populating her shelves. To my pleasant surprise, not all were as dark or twisted as I had come to believe contemporary literary lists of prestige must be. To the contrary, as I cross-checked several titles against my above-mentioned writer and reader categories (as well as reading a review or two from trusted sources), I found there were several worth tackling, not least of which is Cormac McCarthy’s remarkable book, The Road, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. 

Likewise, the Man Booker Prize, akin to the Pulitzer for British writers, yielded similar results. In fact, when I hosted a British literature book club during my years as a trailing spouse living in Oxford, I would frequently troll the Booker list along with past winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, or, even more often, the Modern Library’s List of the Best 100 Novels for picks. Each yielded more than a little fruit, with some titles still sitting on a to-read list whenever the day comes that I have time to tackle them all. Similarly, the PEN translation prize has been a helpful resource for me on more than one occasion when I am trying to find the least intimidating version of some classic I probably ought to have read two decades ago. It is the PEN Prize that led me to Robert Fagles’ amazing translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad, for example. This past year when I was battling morning sickness during the early weeks of pregnancy with my fourth child, I decided to relish the pleasure of re-reading some of my favorite Newberry Award winners from my youth, so The Giver and Number the Stars littered my bedside table alongside The Westing Game, A Wrinkle in Time, and more. 

In short, I have learned to trust the widely regarded “leaders” of literature. Which is not to say I approach each book or writer at face value as a “winner,” but rather that I generally approach these titles with some measure of reverence simply for what they have achieved among peers. I also find that these awards provide a good vote of confidence for titles that reach me via other paths, which I may not be sure about. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for instance, may not have made it to the top of my list on recommendation alone, but knowing it also won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction nudged me over the line of indecision. 

Cross-Checking and Other Tools 

As noted above, filtering new titles or long-contemplated titles against these few quality checkpoints tend to yield a reliable baseline for choosing and prioritizing good reads. And while many will light up all three without trouble, cross-checked titles do not always yield a favorite.  Still, they nearly always seem worthy of reading, which is more than can be said of most titles you can buy in an airport gift shop. For example, when a friend recommended Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, it didn’t take long for me to realize Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 1920s or that her work was cited bibliographically by several of my favorite nonfiction writers. It is no wonder she stays near the top of my list, which brings me to my last two points. 

Keep Track of Your Favorites 

Much like Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity, keeping a “Top 5 All-Time Favorite” list of novels/books/poets etc. is a worthwhile exercise even if it is always changing. If you are like me, it provides a reliable starting point for exploring new authors and new reads by beginning with what I already know that I like. It also serves as a good “home base” for those inevitable lulls that tend to crop up now and then between books when I am not sure where to go next. Revisiting the Top Five can generate a lot of good, fresh ideas as I tug on the threads dangling around those titles, be it similar writers, other titles by the same author, returning to the source that led me to that book to begin with, or simply re-reading one of them because it’s an old favorite. 

Keep Record of Your Want-to-Reads

 I started this process several years ago and I am so grateful that I did. Time and again this list breathes life on my stale, bored seasons of reading or gives me a welcome escape from the pit of miserable, dark, depressing reads that I bumble into due to a wrong turn every now and then. This list is what keeps ambition and curiosity alive in my life as a reader. It is where I can bench some titles if I am interested but too weary to try something big. It is where I can keep track of a beach read or a travel read that looks fun and light but will still be purposeful. It is where I secretly note the books I know enough to be conversant about, but which I’d like to read again or read more carefully later on. 

As I said at the start, reading well remains — like any matter of taste — an exercise in preference. But like any matter of taste — be it food, wine, fashion, or something else — cultivating a reliable literary palette requires some skill and attentiveness as well. In my own efforts to read more intentionally and carefully over the years I’ve learned that these disciplines of following strong writers, mimicking good readers, and trusting the leaders are three of the best ways to consistently find a good read, or at least to ensure that my library fines are spent on worthy debts. 

Kate Harris serves as Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture in Washington, D. C. She is wife to a good man and mother of their four young children.

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