Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading Hard Books

On one of the yahoo groups I am on, we were having a discussion this past week about reading hard books.  And then Marcia Somerville, author of Tapestry of Grace, posted an article on her blog called "Reading Hard Books."  Hearing similar thoughts from two sources in the same week made me sit up and take notice.  Perhaps God wants me to learn something here!

Quoting from Marcia's blog (and she quotes from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler):

[Adler] makes a passionate case that the books that enlarge our grasp of truth and make us wiser must feel, at first, beyond us. They ‘must make demands on you. They must seem to you to be beyond your capacity.’ If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.

Evangelical Christians, who believe God reveals himself primarily through a book, the Bible, should long to be the most able readers they can be. This means that we should want to become clear, penetrating, accurate, fair-minded thinkers, because all good reading involves asking questions and thinking. This is one reason why the Bible teaches us, ‘Do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature’ (1 Cor. 14:20 RSV). It’s why Paul said to Timothy, ‘Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything’ (2 Tim. 2:7). God’s gift of understanding is through thinking, not instead of thinking.

I agree, and it gave me pause as I consider my own book choices and the books I ask (force) my children to read.

Sometimes my children complain that a good plot is buried in archaic language.  It is so hard for them to read, they want to give up and read a more modern version, an abridged version, or a different book altogether.  I guess it depends on the book and our purpose for reading it, but I feel largely validated in saying no to their desire to quit, and in making them finish a hard book (and just so we're clear, this would be for my older children who are already excellent readers, and the hard books are interspersed with easier reading).

Hard books not only challenge and instruct our thinking, they also increase our vocabulary!  On the yahoo group I mentioned earlier, Rebecca shared these thoughts:

"Another time I read Anne of Green Gables to my children since I had so enjoyed that series when I was a child. Once again I was surprised how complex the language was. It was harder than my pleasure reading books. It was then that I decided that our children must, must read the old classics regularly to increase their reading age. If they stick to what is published now, they will never increase their reading age past a certain point.

Just last night I was reading a free ebook about Beowulf. Being copywrite free, it must have been written pre ~1920. The language was hard and I had to concentrate when I was reading. Here's the thing - according to the website I  downloaded it from, it was an elementary school level book
. Now I am wondering  what language level were their high-school books!"

I have recently been experiencing this for myself, as I am currently reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  There are famous quotes from this book that I have heard referenced ("it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..") but I have never before read the book for myself, and since we just finished learning about the French Revolution I figured this would be the perfect opportunity (I was never sure which two cities the title referred to, but now I know they are London and Paris in the 1780's!).  The language is incredibly rich and descriptive, but the sentences are woven together in such a way that I really have to concentrate as I read (also, I am usually reading when I am tired!).  Here is an excerpt from a section I read yesterday:

"Up the broad flight of shallow steps, Monsieur the Marquis, flambeau preceded, went from his carriage, sufficiently disturbing the darkness to elicit loud remonstrance from an owl in the roof of the great pile of stable building away among the trees."

Isn't that an incredible way to say, "Monsieur the Marquis, with his lantern carrier in front of him, walked up the stairs so loudly that an owl on the stable in the woods hooted loudly." ??

What do you think?  Do you agree with the value of reading hard books?  Have you read anything recently that has made you concentrate?  Look up unfamiliar words?  Spoken to you with its richness of language?

I'm pondering what this all means for myself, and for our home school, but in the mean time I am going to go read more Dickens!


Teacher/Mom said...

If this were Facebook I'd hit the like button.

Dana said...

What a great, thoughtful post! And, it made me think.

First of all, I've been 'studying' the French Revolution as we are headed to France...in just a few days! I actually downloaded a free copy of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities, but I haven't read it. And, do you know why? Because I wasn't enjoying it! The language is HARD to read!! But, I bet I wouldn't have let my daughter push it aside so easily.

My daughter and I have actually read through A Christmas Carol about 1.5 years ago (so, she was barely 10). It was very enjoyable! But, A Tale of Two Cities? I don't understand why it has to be so difficult. (For example, I enjoyed YOUR sentence more than Dickens! It was so much easier to read & understand!)

So, when do you push & when do you put it aside? I'm not sure of the answer. I did work through a hard G. A. Henty book a few months ago. Well, I guess the sentences were easily read but there were a lot of archaic words which I didn't know. I was reading on my iPad, so I used it's 'define' function to look them up!

I've now read several books about the French Revolution. Maybe I'll try to tackle Dickens again?!? Thanks for making me THINK!

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann

Loren Warnemuende said...

I completely agree, Pam. I'm positive one of the reasons Clare took off on reading this year is because of the vocabulary she's heard at home in conversation and books. Her teacher gave her great tools and strategies, then she ran with it because she had the connective pegs/schema/framework.

It has been so fun to browse our shelves and pull off old favorites to read to the kids!