DO YOU “READ FOR PLEASURE”? For many people, this means they enjoy an “easy read.” But true pleasure, in any task or pastime, requires skill–and acquiring a new skill takes time and practice. What may start as a delight becomes difficult as soon as we try to improve, but if we persevere we will find that what once seemed hard becomes easy–and pleasurable. With respect to reading, developing our skills can open up new realms of pleasure (and moral profit), in a way that few other skills do.
Ease and Pleasure Are Not the Same
Remember “the Piano Guy”? Two or three decades ago, back when “infomercials” were a big thing on television, the Piano Guy’s videos ran incessantly, telling people that they didn’t need years of instruction and practice to play the piano, they just needed some simple tricks that he could teach them.
I was stunned by his chutzpa in claiming that playing the piano is so easy that it takes just “three easy steps.” But I was also intrigued: was there a shortcut to learning to play? Should I buy a portable keyboard and order his videos? After watching a couple of his infomercials, however, I found myself disappointed; I realized that what he meant by playing the piano was banging out a few chords. In other words, you would not become an accomplished pianist using his method, but you would be able to accompany yourself while singing “your favorite tunes”—provided those are pop tunes with simple, repetitive melodies. What the Piano Guy teaches is not a skill but a “hack.” He wants to make easy pleasure quickly available, but his shortcuts (unintentionally) make it unlikely that anyone who learns them will get the kind of pleasure that comes with real musical skill, the ability to take any musical score and play it with ease.
I don’t blame Piano Guy for wanting to cash in on people’s desire to skip over the hard parts and get right to the fun stuff. The modern world is enamored of “hacks,” shortcuts, and workarounds of all kinds. Search for your favorite kind of hack on YouTube (where the Piano Guy’s videos are enjoying the infomercial afterlife) and prepare for the deluge: everything from life hacks to parenting hacks to handyman hacks, anything you want to do when you have no idea what you are doing. So why not piano hacks? If you want to play around at making music and you’re satisfied with being able to bang out a few chords, the Piano Guy might be what you’re looking for. However, if you yearn to be able to play all kinds of music with skill and ease, you will still need years of expert instruction and constant practice. Sorry. That’s real life.
Skill Brings Pleasure and Requires Effort
Sadly, many people don’t realize that reading is also a skill that we acquire slowly, with a lot of practice and a certain amount of coaching. Those who read widely and voraciously pick up a lot of reading skills accidentally and unconsciously–which is good, because schools today do little to develop reading skills. Unfortunately, many adults who have completed their schooling make little use of the few skills they have gained. Studies show that most people never read another book after they get out of school, and even a cursory study of book marketing shows that those who do read generally prefer “easy reads” and tend to read within a specific genres.
Meanwhile, genres–the kinds of books booksellers offer–have proliferated, splitting and becoming more narrowly defined or “niche”. For instance, if you look for science fiction books on Amazon today (scifi was once itself considered a “niche”), you’ll find no fewer than twenty sub-genres, from Space Opera to Genetic Experimentation Fiction to Dystopian Fiction, each with its own conventions and reader expectations. You might think that this proliferation indicates a wider range of literature, but it actually means a narrowing of genre expectations. Woe to the author whose book is classified as “hard science fiction” who throws in a little romance and soft-pedals the sciencey bits! He’ll find himself with a rash of one-star reviews, as will any romance writer who allows the romantic lead to gabble on about the physics of car engines. Readers want what they want, and that’s all that they want. The biggest flames are thrown by readers expecting an “easy read” but who found the book “challenging.”
Learning to deal with challenges to the intellect and imagination is what being a good reader is all about. Why should reading be any less challenging than golfing or doing jigsaw puzzles—or learning to play the piano? Becoming a better reader also means reading better books. After all, no one who hopes to become the next Tiger Woods is going to spend all his time at the nearest Putt-Putt Golf course. Challenges help us to grow in skill, and becoming more skillful is always a pleasure, even though it takes effort and perseverance. The same is as true of reading: as we become more skillful and learn to tackle challenging reading experiences, the pleasure and satisfaction we gain makes the experience worth the effort.
Sadly, today most American adults have only rudimentary reading skills, but I don’t think we should blame them for their lack of enthusiasm for reading. As the Ethiopian eunuch said to St. Philip, how can a person understand what he reads, unless someone show him? Schools spend too little time teaching how to read with understanding, much less with the pleasure that come from understanding, and as a result reading becomes either a bore or a chore. Even those who accept the challenge of reading the great stories of the past will find it rough going, simply because they don’t have the reading habits that would make it easy and pleasurable.
Step Right Up and Get Your Skills Here
ONE OF THE THINGS I WOULD LIKE TO DO on this blog is to equip any reader who is willing to learn the way to approach “great” works so that they can understand, and enjoy the finest works of the Western cultural tradition: not only great stories, but also important works of history, philosophy, theology, and spiritual guidance. I understand the natural resistance to reading something that require a bit of work, and, like anyone I often fall prey to the temptation to settle for an “easy read” or to play some meaningless but time-consuming game on my cell phone. But I also know how satisfying it can be to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” a work of literature that has been edifying and delighting readers for centuries – or even millennia. And, fortunately, I have learned the requisite skills to do so.
I once had a wise professor who once insisted, “If you really want to learn something, teach it.” The reading skills I’ve acquired have come to me indirectly, after many years as a student as well as a teacher, a writer as well as a reader, and I can tell you that most of these skills are seldom taught in the classroom. So I’ll be sharing secrets that I’ve learned the hard way, along with some I’ve learned from explicit instruction, to help you, dear reader, get some of the pleasure out of great literature that I find there. Maybe you hated studying literature in school, or maybe you were disappointed at a method of instruction that did little to show you why “great works” are considered great. I hope you’ll stick around and read along with me as we continue to delve into some of the most interesting, engaging, and illuminating stories ever written. (Hit the Subscribe link to make sure that you never miss a thing.)
I’ve already spent some time on a couple of truly great stories, although seldom read today: the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, both of which have been pleasing and intriguing readers for more than two thousand years. If you want, you can go back and read what I’ve written about those, as a prelude to tackling the next part of that series, which is all about how different versions of the account of the Great Flood really tell different stories about what it means to be human. Those are great stories, but a “compleat Catholic reader” will recognize that they don’t really present a very high notion of the human condition, nor do they paint deity in a very flattering light. I think we will find that they contrast remarkably with the flood story as it is told in The Greatest Story Ever Told, commonly called the Holy Bible.
Next time, we’ll see how a “recreational reader” with no direct knowledge of the Bible can, even without the help of Bible scholars, use ordinary reading skills to get at the “literal” meaning of the Genesis account of Noah and the Great Flood. It’s not as easy as you might think! But it doesn’t require a lot of formal training, either. So, sign up for email notifications to make sure you don’t miss “Joe Schmoe Reads Genesis.”