Deja Lu

My son, who just turned ten, responded to my questions about a book with a quote from his school librarian:

“The first time you read a book, read it for pleasure. The second time you think about what the author is saying. The third time, you figure out what you want from the book.”

I wish I had learned that in fourth grade. Maybe I did and just forgot (Ha! to re-read whatever book that bit of wisdom is in).

Kidding aside, that way of reading is intuitive — at first. The reading bug bit me pretty early. By the time I was in first grade, I’d at least flipped my way through the family encyclopedia, marking the chapters I intended to go back and re-read with tissue paper (sorry, Mom). When I got older, I had little libraries all over the house (and yes, that included the bathrooms, though no toilet paper bookmarks). The nightstand drawer held the current books, and the most frequent re-reads.

But as I got older and time to read became more limited, I started to read less for pleasure and more for “business”. I needed to know what the author was saying the moment after I read it so I could go on and do something else: study for the science test, shoot some baskets, daydream about how to impress the cute girl I was way too shy to even introduce myself to, etc.

Then the moment came when I decided reading and writing was my vocation. I went to college knowing I was going to major in English. Since it was going to be my business, there was even less time for pleasure. And I had to adjust my reading for that added challenge. What was I going to write about what I read?

I’d unlearned step one, then I went into a profession where there is very little pleasure expected in reading. Now, almost full circle as a writer, I still skip step one of reading. A beautiful turn of phrase still makes me gasp out loud, but there’s no time to savor it.

“What a startling metaphor. I wonder how I could do something similar with. . .” or “that’s a very effective characterization, I hope she’ll carry that through and build on it as the plot turns” or “Shoot, I hope I didn’t write anything that clunky sounding” or “I should email that to the critique group, it would really help K’s novel,” etc.

I’m going to learn from my son. I’m going back to step one. But becoming a writer means taking that full circle. The close analysis, the potential of learning craft and opening the creative mind to new ideas, that all important step three, is going to be part of the pleasure of reading.

Now all I have to do is get my son to re-read Because of Winn-Dixie so we can talk about it. I can’t wait.


3 thoughts on “Deja Lu

  1. Dave, this reminds me of Frank Lentricchia’s “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” (1996 Lingua Franca). He really came to despair the loss of “step 1,” as reading became his profession, especially under the added weight of Theory. His solution: 1) give up lit criticism; 2) ditch the jaded grad students for the “naive” undergrads; and 3) become a writer himself. I think you’re onto something!


    1. He could’ve written a novel about a literary critic I suppose. . .
      I was thinking about John Clum when I wrote this post, and his close reading methods. It takes me forever to read a middle grade novel. Almost as long as a Pinter play!


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