Friday, April 21, 2017

My Rules for Reading

I was at a presentation by friends Lara Searcy and Josh Flores where they talked about their personal rules for reading...they challenged me to compile my own rules.

My mother always told me on those long middle-of the night feedings when I was a newborn, she'd hold me in one hand, nursing, and hold her current book in the other. I used to joke that I absorbed my love of reading through mother's milk. Years later, I found a line from Steinbeck that said much the same thing, and I gasped in recognition:

"Some literature was in the air around me. The Bible I absorbed through my skin. My uncles exuded Shakespeare, and “Pilgrim's Progress” was mixed with my mother's milk."

I pretended to read before I was in school, memorizing my Golden Book version of Cinderella. I can remember the first word I read by myself: "morning". I used the picture clue in the early reader and the context clues. In our house, everyone had a book...or two, and everyone read.

So, you'd've thought that I'd have my rules for reading right at my fingertips. But no. It took some thinking, combining, crossing come up with my rules. They are eclectic. They will make some readers cringe. Shake their heads. Roll their eyes. And I love that.

Once we learn to read, the very act of reading becomes our own. I learned early on I was not a phonetic reader, so I never tried to sound out words. I'd use pictures and context clues, like I did with "morning". If that didn't work, I *gasp* skipped the word and went on reading. And I did OK.

So, my rules of reading:

1.  Never, ever, apologize for your books. Read whatever you want. Every book makes you a stronger, more insightful reader. I have always read whatever I want. As a teen, I read Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, when my mother wanted me to read Dickens. I read Cherry Ames, and I read Dickens. I reread books. I read books that are too easy, and books that are too hard. I sometimes challenge myself, reading unfamiliar authors, about unfamiliar places.

I read trash and I read treasures. My parents never censored my books...but Mom did try to hide Peyton Place from my sisters and me (unsuccessfully in my case). Reading widely, reading bad writing and good writing, helped me hone my tastes. In my class I made sure my students saw me reading widely and indiscriminately. They saw me read.

2. Have several books going at the same time (now, for me, this includes Audible books). I can then look at my books and decide what I'm in the mood for. I'll usually have at least one novel, a young adult book (or two), a nonfiction, and a professional book, all unfinished, waiting for me. . So, I look at my titles, and grab the book that whispers to me.

3. Read the ends of books without shame. Sometimes I've been known to read the end of a the bookstore, before I buy it.

I met author Norma Fox Mazer years ago and I told her I'd just bought her book, had read the first chapter and the end. She stared in horror and asked me why, in the world, did I do that? I stammered out that I wanted to know where the book was going to take me. She whipped out a tiny notebook from her back pocket and jotted down a note. I always feared I would see myself in a book as the crazy lady who only read the ends of books.

But, that's the truth. I want to know the end of the journey, often before I've taken the first step. No guilt. Just a fast way to sort through all the books competing for my attention. Most of the time I will choose to read the book, knowing the conclusion. That way I can savor the book, the language. I can see the foreshadowing clues. Enjoy my read.

4. Never feel impelled to finish a book. I usually do finish books, but if I don't, I can toss them aside without a qualm. I listened to my students talk about giving a book 10 pages, or 50 pages, or 5 pages. I've got no arbitrary number -- I just know when it's time to put one book down so I have time for another. The two that instantly come to mind for me are Enigma and A Simple Plan. Life's too short to read books that don't engage you.

5. Read actively, with a pen, markers stickies and two (not one) bookmarks. I have one sticky bookmark at the page I started reading that day. I move the second bookmark as I read that day. I learned that trick from a student who placed one bookmark on the last page of the current reading assignment and another marked his progress toward that goal. I just happily hopscotch my bookmarks day by day. I use stickies to mark beautiful passages, insights, figurative language. Good writing. Before I used stickies, I dog-eared the pages I wanted to remember. With not an ounce of regret.

My reading buddy and I have agreed that if we borrow someone else's book and want to mark or highlight, we just do it...and then buy our friend a new book, keeping the one we read and marked.

6. Claim the book as your own. I have intense conversations with the book and the author. I write notes in the margin. Once a book is in my hands, it's my book, and I'm in charge of how I read. One student brought up an old copy of Jane Eyre, laughing. I'd read it, and had made angry comments about Rochester in the margin. On one page I'd written, "Jerk!" She agreed. At that point in the novel, he was a jerk. And I needed to document that fact.

I make a book mean what I need it to mean. I read slowly; I read quickly. I skip the boring parts (long paragraphs of description) and skim until I find dialogue. A conversation reminded me of the books through which I skipped the most: Fellowship of the Rings -- especially the first time I read it. I would warn first-timers to Tolkien that there will be a lot of walking and a lot of's ok to skip. When I read Grisham's The Firm, I skipped and skipped, saying to myself, "OK -- it's a chase. I get it!" And then there's Clancy...Dear Lord. I can never make sense of his techie writing about gadgets and weapons. His books are where I learned to skip and find a conversation. Nowhere in the contract between reader and author does it say I must read every word. My book. My choice.

I reread favorite passages. I reread favorite books and learn something new every time.

I fell in love with Joy Luck Club when it first came out. I read it from cover to cover (yes, after I read the ending). Then I read it again, this time reading all the mothers' stories together, then the daughters' stories. Then I read it again, reading the mother-daughter stories together. Each rereading added meaning for me. I was in charge. I could read as I pleased

7. Respond to books. I laugh out loud. I gasp. I cry. When I read with my students, I always warned them that at least once in the semester I'd cry. Their job, if they saw me, was to roll their eyes and smile indulgently. Once, in class, while reading the ending of Twelve, I just about cried off my makeup. I didn't realize it, but a student had been watching me. When I put the book down and tried to compose myself, she tiptoed out of her desk, crept to my desk, picked up the book, returned to her desk, and started reading. I laughed so often that we began to call those books that elicited laughs, "Snork Books." Students often asked for a Snork Book. My emotional responses to my books did as much to sell books to teens as any book talk.

8.  Return to the beginning of the book and reread or copy your beautiful passages. So often, when I do that, I find I've identified important insights, themes, symbols. Without trying to. I just mark words that sing for me. My students could (and did) decide which of my books was worthwhile by seeing how many stickies I had in the book.

9. Take the time to think about your books and write about them. Once for my birthday a friend gave me a book journal. I loved it. I read and wrote in front of my students. The act of reading became more meaningful because as I read, I was thinking about what I wanted to say about the book. What quotes I might include. This was my last reflection of the book, and it helped me put it in a bright focus. I filled up probably 10 journals until I discovered Long before I joined Facebook, I was showing the site to my students. One told me goodreads sounded like Facebook for book nerds. And it is. It's a place to think about and write about books, and to see what your friends are reading. Just this month, I've had conversations with former students about our books, and what we might read next. More than my solitary journal, goodreads reminds me that reading is very social...when we find a book that moves us, we really want to share it with someone. Goodreads will link to FB and to Twitter, so friends can see what I'm reading.

10. Return to your TBR stack (or, for me, my kindle or my audible application -- yes, I'm an omnivorous reader. Love my audible when I walk, my kindle when I travel -- instead of filling half my suitcase with books so I'd always have one, my 'real' physical books when I want to return over and over to those meaningful favorites) and decide what I'm in the mood for, and grab the next one.

My rules are not particularly academic or systematic or logical. But they're mine.

I'm interested, what are some of YOUR reading rules?


  1. This is beautiful! I love it. I agree with so much here. But I am a dog ear reader. Many marked places thoughout the book with varying folds.

  2. I too am a dog-ear reader. I dog-ear my stopping page, pages I want to return to, pages that spoke to me...The dog-ear is always points to the page I am referencing. I turn my stopping page back up when I move on and leave the others. If I really like something, I may double fold it down. Sometimes I just re-read my favorite parts of books. I have certain authors I love so much that I re-read all their work every few years, some even yearly. I do not like reading the end ahead of time as a rule, but I have peeked once or twice when things are not going well and I am afraid I won't like what is ahead. I do not like books that don't end well. They can put me through misery, as long as it is redeemed in the end. If it is not going to end well, there is no point in it for me. There are quite a few series I never completed after reading in student journals what happened in a certain book. It can be a deal-breaker! (Divergent) There are certain golden phrases that I have included in my mental conversations, that slip into my actual conversations. I save authors I love for times when I can read the book in one all-nighter if it moves me. If I do not like a book, I dump it. I do not feel compelled to read professional books. After 26 years in the business and another 9 associated with it, there is not much new that I see. Some books irritate me to the point I would like to burn them. (Move your Bus by Ron Clark) My reading time is for enjoyment, not work. I love very few "classics", but those I do love, I love a lot and read over and over. I don't read self-improvement books. If an author is trying to write a historical by putting a modern character, slang, and morals into period clothing, I am done with it. I won't read poorly researched books, nor books that are poorly written. (Never reading 50 Shades, not even necessarily because of content, but writing quality.) My mantra in years of teaching reading is that the crucial element is matching the right book to the right student. They will never become a true reader until that book is found. I matched a student in my honors class who hated reading a few years ago to Nicholas Sparks and created a true reader. She still sends me notes about what she is reading. I keep adult books as well as YA for my middle school readers. I read them at their age, why can't they? I learned descriptive writing from Mary Stewart, suspense from Victoria Holt, humor from Elizabeth Peters, adventure from Louis L'Amour, and learned how to truly appreciate witty dialogue from Georgette Heyer. I read "The Scarlet Pimpernel" to my daughter when she was four and she adored it. She also learned to read at four by looking at my books and sounding out words while I was reading. I feel no shame for having a frothy historical romance next to a book about historic country houses in England along with a detective series set in the Roman Empire, and a copy of Archaeology magazine on my nightstand. I get so little reading time these days, that I spend it on things that make me happy! Any reading can be educational if you are enjoying what you read. I got credit for a college course in European History from reading historical romances and taking a CLEP test!

    1. Oh, my! I love what you've said here...I, too, learn my history from novels. BOOKS IN KIDS' HANDS is the most important service we can render, huh?

      Thank you for such a thoughtful, passionate response.

  3. Lovely! Perfect!

    I, too, shifted to stickies once they arrived on the scene, but I still have dog-eared, highlighted, margin-comments books using my own secret code (Q for Quote, asterisk for brilliance, etc) and my notes in the empty pages, overleafs and chapter breaks.

    I ***love*** getting a book so marked from a friend. Once, during a bad time in my life, a friend I didn't know very well brought me Pema Chodron's "When Things Fall Apart." It was her personal copy ---annotated, underlined and full of her questions. I never, in a million years, would have picked this book up, and if I had I probably would have read a chapter or two and thought '' But my friend's notes kept me going, and going, and going. Until I understood what it was Chodron had to say to me: plenty. That's one of my rules: always read what friends share, not so much for the shared book, but for what it tells you about your friendship.

    BTW, I agree with In the Middle: Ron Clark sucks.

    1. LOL! So do I!! I think I have Chodron's book in one of those stacks of TBR. I'm so lucky to have collected reading buddies from all over. You all enrich my life.