The Art of Reading

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

The Art of Reading

Much has been written about the art of writing; far less about the equally important art of reading. By this I mean proper reading, reading which enables you, in the words of a former Mathematics master of mine, to mark, learn and inwardly digest.

One famous author who did write about reading was the author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898)). In the introductory essay to one of his textbooks on Symbolic Logic, he enunciated four rules for mastering the art of reading. In a greatly simplified and abbreviated form, these are as follows:

  • Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!, and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights.
  • Don’t begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point, and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set.
  • When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired. In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  • If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties.

As Andy Miller wrote in The Guardian of Sunday, June 18, 2014:

“The pleasures of reading involve patience, solitude and contemplation, but we rush to consume content effortlessly.”

Patience, solitude, and contemplation are all conspicuously absent in today’s hurried world of sound bites, brief internet articles, and press updates. Perhaps if people were to concentrate on these three virtues, and substantially less on the modern insistence on instant gratification of desires, the world would be a quieter, more pleasant, and more spiritual place.

In the ultra commercial sphere of best selling fiction, of course, authors pen what their market wants. Such writing leads only to a superficial scanning of the text, rather than a reading of it. At night, when I pick up the novel I am currently reading from my bedside cabinet, I frequently have to re-read the preceding chapter to remind myself of what on earth the book was about, and who on earth are the characters which populate it. Admittedly, this may have something to do with the well known feature of ageing – the ability to recall events of one’s distant childhood vividly, while at the same time being unable to remember what was for supper last night !

None of these kind of books make very much of an impact on me. By contrast, I remember very well the superbly drawn characters of Charles Dickens, the prescience of H G Wells, and the comic situations of Fielding.

Still, to give the last word to Lewis Caroll, the way to read is

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”


Books I read in 2014 – Zen, the art of mental modeling, and …

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Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. 1920. On the Art of Reading –


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