Reading Journal (June 24): Learning to Read Better

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I realized last week that I’m not a very good reader.

For example, I am still struggling with The Arabian Nights, and many people find it a breezy read. In fact, it’s taken me so long thus far, I had to return it to the library this week. It has to be returned to its home library and then it will come back to me again. So I have a few days without it. I did have about an hour the other day before I returned it where I was able to sit and work my way through a full story cycle (about 45 pages) and I found myself laughing out loud. There are funny parts amid the rubble of frustrating prose.

But that’s not all I struggle to read. I’ve also been struggling with The Clash of Civilizations, a nonfiction book examining post-Cold War U.S. foreign relations. I told my husband, who was an economics and political science undergraduate and who read this book when it was first published in 1995, that it is poorly written.

He responded, “Maybe you’re just not used to academic writing.”

I realized he was probably right. It’s been so long since I’ve had to read that type of writing, I have to reacquaint myself with the style. The author is not trying to be “pretty.” He’s trying to share political and historical facts. Nonetheless, I’m going slowly with that as well.

The frustration with my “poor” reading ability reminds me of one of my goals when I started my blog and, more specifically, when I started my HTR&W project a year ago. I realize now, of course, that Harold Bloom’s book isn’t going to help me solve any problems, but I would hope that reading a variety of books and reading more carefully (as I’ve tried to do in the past year), would lessen the time I spend struggling to read.

I guess it goes back to Bloom’s phrase “difficult pleasure”: reading well doesn’t always mean “reading easily.” Bloom also isn’t talking about academic reading or archaic really old classics reading. So maybe I can give myself a break.

What do you think? How does one train to be a better reader? That may be a rhetorical question with no answers.

Currently Reading

Yes, I am crazy! (Not pictured: Winnie-the-Pooh; The Good Earth, audiobook)

In addition to The Arabian Nights and The Clash of Civilizations, I started Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I’m reading along with my sister. So far, I think it is a perfect book for book lovers, full of great quotes about how books influence our lives. It’s the kind of book I’d love to recommend to book clubs, much like The Uncommon Reader. Hopefully, though, it doesn’t have crude humor as The Uncommon Reader did. Anyway, GLPPS is so far, so good!

I gave up on for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I got the physical book from the library. I might read it when I finish Arabian Nights, or maybe I’ll take a break and read Woman in White; it’s my current LibraryThing Group Read and I’d like to read it with the group.

While I have successfully read a few books via Daily Reader, Uncle Tom wasn’t working for me.

Sometimes I start a book and just wish I was reading in a different format. Do you ever think of a particular book as best in a certain format for a particular read? For example, I own both a soft cover and a hard cover of Pride and Prejudice but I opted to listen to the audiobook a few months ago; I had the digital copy (Project Gutenberg) of Jane Eyre, but I wanted to get a soft cover from the library; etc.  Which format do you prefer? I think I tend to like reading a soft cover best, but I like a hardcover sometimes too. But sometimes I specifically would like to listen to an audiobook.

The Good Earth is absolutely beautiful in the audiobook format. I’ve never read it before, and while I’ve only begun, I can tell this is a book I will read again, maybe with a nice soft cover next time.

I was going to write up a post about The New Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, which I’ve only read parts of. Instead, I’m going to read all of it as I have been reading HTR&W: read it a little each month or as I read the works on the list. It’s a very inspiring list of works to read, and I find myself very excited to read the works mentioned!

My Books

  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (46 out of 150 pages; children’s fiction) I’m reading this aloud to my toddler son and, to my surprise, he’s obviously loving it!
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (200 read of 750 pages; children’s fiction) on hold

Library Loot, Old

  • The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington (217 read of 320 pages; nonfiction).
  • The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk (39 read of 263 pages; nonfiction)
  • The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin (91 read of 292 pages; nonfiction)
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (audiobook, on disc 2 of 9 discs, about 10.5 hours; fiction)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaeffer and Anne Burrows (92 read of 275 pages; fiction)
  • Chicago: Then and Now by Elizabeth McNulty (150 pages; nonfiction/coffee table book) FINISHED! This had lots of pictures, so it was quick to skim through.
  • Lost Chicago by David Lowe (20 read of 270 pages; nonfiction/coffee table book). More text than the previous one, but still lots of pictures.

Library Loot, New

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (161 read of 388 pages; fiction) on hold
  • The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record by Stanley Appelbaum (108 pages; nonfiction)
  • Chicago’s Classical Architecture: The Legacy of the White City (Images of America series) by David Stone (128 pages; nonfiction)
  • Art History by Marilyn Stokstad (200 browsed of 1150 pages; nonfiction) I am not reading this but rather browsing through it and looking at the pictures. I don’t know much about art!

On Hold at Library

  • The Arabian Nights translated by Husain Haddawy (205 read of 425 pages; fiction). I had to return it to the library, but I should get it again soon!
  • The Forsyte Saga, Series 1 and Series 2 (7 DVDs; 2002 fiction movie). I may try the older one instead; I’ve heard better things about it.
Reviewed on June 24, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Honestly, if I’m struggling through a book so much, I don’t end up getting anything out of it, and I don’t feel like that makes me a better reader at all. I’ve never been of the mind thinking that finishing books I hate will make me a better person. There are some I’ve had to read – Madame Bovary, Don Quixote, for instance – where I feel like I learned more from researching and reading analysis than from actually reading, and I wish I’d done only that.

    I’m not real good with academic reading, especially when it comes to history and politics. I don’t like the reading, and I don’t gain anything from them. I have one of those brains that can memorize really easy in the short term, and won’t retain anything in the long term. So if I’m going to learn about history or politics, it has to be in a different format altogether.

  • Amanda, Well, see, the thing is I am enjoying them both and I am learning things. I just find it hard, and I have to keep rereading sentences as I go. Which takes a long time.

    I have a very hard time memorizing in any direction, so that memory of yours is a great thing!

    I’m not very good at academic reading either. I took some classes in politics and history and I always love learning the stuff. I’m just veeeeeeery out of practice, I guess. Maybe I never learned in school either!

  • I don’t think you’re a bad reader: I think we all have types of books that challenge us. I’ve tried to read Pickwick Papers three times, and never gotten past page 100!

    I’m only good with international relations-y academic reading…when it comes to history or anthropology/sociology I get annoyed so quickly.

    I’m also almost always juggling books, so if I get bored with one, I just switch to another! I’d get really frustrated otherwise.

  • I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I’m a bit impatient in reading, I think. If it’s going to take me weeks to read, I get real ADD and want to go on to something else. Right now I’ve started both East of Eden and Ada, and plan to read them both over a couple weeks while I read other books at the same time. Both are books I really want to read, but they are long, and especially Ada is very difficult. I don’t know that I’ll get much out of Ada, but I have been trying to read it now for nearly ten years so I really want to make it through this time. If the book wasnt’ Nabokov, though, I doubt I’d try for so long. And even th ough it IS Nabokov, I still have to convince myself to read just a couple chapters a day.

  • You’re a great reader! And I think the only way to “improve” our reading is to, well, read. Different styles work/don’t work according to individual tastes and “practice”. You do great stuff with your reading! Don’t be too hard on yourself. You might just be in need of a little fluff reading for a bit. 🙂

    I’m listening to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man now, and, while I thought listening to Ulysses worked great for the first time around, I don’t feel the same way about this one. I like it and I’ll finish listening to it, but for me this one needs a read of the physical book.

    I keep eyeing up The New Lifetime Reading Plan, too. I’ll be waiting to see what you think of it!


  • I feel ya on this one. It can be really frustrating to pick up a book that others have raved about only to find that your brain can’t seem to parse the words on the page in a sense-making way! Or to find something really dry and boring and soporific.

    Maybe it’s helpful to do what you do with these challenging reads and break them into manageable chunks – say 10 pages per day – and to read them alongside other books that you don’t find quite so taxing. That way you get the satisfaction of making progress in the book, but not to the exclusion of all else. I think the key with challenging reads is you have to be ok with going slow… that can be nigh impossible in today’s fast paced blogging world, but I find that when I can shake my internal timer that’s fussing over how many day’s it’s been since I last posted, I am generally a better reader. And maybe reading a book on a first pass won’t be your breakthrough moment for it, but it may make the next challenging read a little more approachable.

  • I’m trying to get through “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as well. Makes me mad when I find a book that is so popular but I find it boring and hard to stay focused with. Do I keep muddling through or just toss it aside for another day? I love reading, but I feel stupid when I don’t understand or get the book.

    I’ve read GLPPS twice and loved it both times, why can’t I find more books like that?

  • I can sympathize with your feelings on being a “better” reader. I’m always amazed at the people who can read numerous books in a very short time span and still seem as if they remember everything and got quite a lot out of the books. I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I do try to get as much out of books as I can. So, maybe not being a fast reader is better for me. I think becoming a better reader is accomplished by simply reading — reading more, reading more often, reading a variety of genres, etc. I know I have become a better reader when I read something like a Virginia Woolf novel without feeling put off by it. I now enjoy the difficulty of her writing and get so much more out of it because I take the time to read it and savor it.

  • Eva, that’s exactly why I’m always reading so many books at a time!

    Amanda, What you say about reading the book because it is Nabokov is why I read most of my books, even when I have to go slowly. I feel they deserve the extra effort!

    Lezlie, I never thought seasons would change my reading habits, but I’m realizing that with summer, I want a lot more “fluff” in my reading!

    As for the New Lifetime Reading Plan, it’s a great reference book: for each work, he does a really great job summarizing why we should read it and why it’s important in history. And he does so without spoilers. It’s very well done, although of course any “list of best” is always subjective. I don’t know if I can write up a review at this point. I need to browse through it and read the works for a few years first!

  • Steph, I’ve been reading Clash of Civilizations at about 10-15 pages a day for two weeks now and it is better. But even that little bit is taking me 30 minutes! It’s just hard to concentrate on, even in small bits. I certainly hope it helps the next challenging read to be approachable.

    Tami, thanks for visiting! I had thought my challenge with Uncle Tom was that I was reading it online, but maybe it really is just boring! A previous commenter mentioned a few weeks ago that she read the annotated version and enjoyed it. I may have to give that a try. But probably not in the summer. I’m ready for something fun!

    Lisa, I agree, faster is not always better! I should probably revisit Virgina Woolf. I wonder if I’d like it more now that I’ve read more.

  • I almost always prefer reading the soft back book – I find hard backs too heavy! I am discovering that some books work better in audio book form, and I think GLPPS is one of them – have you tried listening to it?

    I’m planning to read The Good Earth soon, so I look forward to hearing all about it.

  • I really prefer to read everything in a softcover trade paperback size. The exception that I just discovered is that Large Print is terrific for reading in the car.

    I find that I don’t retain specifics of what I read unless I talk about it with someone, preferably WHILE reading it. If I wait too long I can’t even manage to write decent reviews of anything. For example, I read “I Love a Man in Uniform” almost 2 months ago and wrote my review this week. I really struggled with it because the details had left my mind. I knew I loved it, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why.

  • I have to be in the mood to read the more academic type novels. The main places I read are on the train and in bed and so anything that I have to concentrate too hard on are not really suitable, but I will specifically choose to either listen to some of those harder books or to make time to read in other places.

  • Not a good reader? Sorry, you made me laugh. You read books that frankly just scare and intimidate me. If anything, I want to be a better reader like you! But, if anything, I think that we have to be in the mood and have the concentration to read certain books. If the mood isn’t right, nothing else matters.

  • Jackie, I’m just reading GLPPPS and I can see how the audio would be good because of the letter format. But I’m glad I’m reading it because it goes quickly. I am listening to The Good Earth and I find myself looking forward to my time in the car! I really like it thus far.

    Lisa, I like to talk about it while reading it too — and I’m finding that if I start my reviews (i.e., open up a Word document and write some notes) at various points in my reading, those reviews are not so daunting …. and I”m almost done with the review by the time I finish the book, I just need to put order to my thoughts!

    Marg, yeah, I fall asleep reading in bed all the time! At least, I have this month with Clash of Civilizations. Not a very good book to read at 9:30 p.m.!

    Natasha, I’m glad I made you laugh! I do feel there’s always room for improvement. Thanks for your encouragement. And seriously, you can read anything no problem! Just don’t be in a hurry…..that’s what is hard, I think.

  • HI!
    I have read The Good Earth. Wonderful book, the writing is so visual. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is on my list of books to read this year. Have a great day!!


  • I think becoming a better reader takes practice. I just started reading The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. There are so many classics I want to read that I choose to use her book as a personal challenge to myself. Many of the books Bauer lists, I have already read.

    The format I enjoy the most is paperback. Being a single mother I’m always on the go, so I need a book that’s light and won’t weigh my backpack down. I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society right now also. I’m listening to it on audio and reading the book. Guernsey Literary and Moby Dick are the only books I prefer listening to on audio though anything that Neil Gaiman reads is always great to listen to.

  • Sherrie, I’m really loving The Good Earth too!

    Vasilly, I haven’t seen that one yet, but I look forward to finding it. Working on a lot of other “lists” right now; do I really need another! I like GLPPPS in print, but I do think it would work well as audio!

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