What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

How to Read a Book and Why

If you go to college, and if you become an English major, and if, as I did, you become fascinated with the world of literary criticism, you will probably run across a famous book called “How to Read and Why” by a famous critic named Harold Bloom. In this book, Mr. Bloom shares his insights into some of the greatest books ever written and tries to convince us that our own insights into books like these are well worth the effort we must expend to discover them.

(Another book on the same subject, and with a similar title, is "How to Read a Book" by famous critic and quiz show scandal participant Charles Van Doren and Mortimer Adler. Technically, it doesn't cover the "why" of reading as Bloom attempts to do, but for my money, it's a lot easier to understand and more relevant for school work.)

I’m not nearly as famous as Mr. Bloom, and I haven’t written any famous books on literary criticism, but I have my own version of “How to Read and Why” and you’re about to hear it.

First, the “How” Part

Your mind is very active while you process text. You may think you’re just saying words to yourself and hearing them somewhere inside your head, but chances are there’s more going on. Becoming aware of what your mind is doing when you read helps you become a better reader.

Nobody knows what goes on in the minds of readers as they read. And there’s no way to tell. So, we have to make up a theory about it. In my theory, there are two different ways to read:

(1) Reading like a reader. We might think of this as the “normal” way of reading where we try to figure out what a piece of writing means by understanding the words a writer uses.

(2) Reading like a writer. When we read from the perspective of a writer, we focus less on what the writer is saying and more on how the writer is saying it.

When we read actively, we don’t just wait for the meaning to come to us, we go after it — consciously, aggressively. We look deeply into the text, hunting in certain ways, searching for certain clues about what the writer is saying to us. It’s as if we start a conversation between the writer, the writing, and ourselves.

Why Read?

To be completely honest, reading can seem rather dull to the average kid compared with playing Nintendo or sports, riding bikes, hanging out with friends, or – and this is the one we adults worry about most – watching television. So why bother?

Oh yeah, sure, you’re gonna grow up and have a job some day where you’ll need to read but isn’t that the kind of tired excuse you never believe anyway, the kind adults give when they just want you to do something to make their lives easier?

As I see it, there are only two real reasons why anyone would want to read: power and pleasure.

Reading is Power

Reading is the quickest, most flexible way of acquiring knowledge on our own. And, as everyone knows, knowledge is power.

If you don’t think reading is connected to power, think again: How many world leaders, CEOs, stock brokers, venture capitalists, scientists, policemen, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Supreme Court Justices, international diplomats, and other powerful people do you think can’t read?

I suppose it’s possible, through professional sports perhaps (but probably not even here anymore), that a person could grow up to be successful and powerful without reading, but unless you can tee it up like Tiger, take it to the hole like Shaq, or hit homeruns like Mark McGwire, you’d better hit the books.

Reading is Pleasure

Everyone is interested in something and everything anyone could be interested in has been written down somewhere. All you have to do is find it. Most kids who are turned off to reading get turned off in school because teachers make them read things they’re not interested in. Don’t let this happen to you. Respect the wishes of responsible adults but don’t let their choices determine your enjoyment.

Still Not Convinced?

Why read? Because when you do it well it helps you get the things you want. When you choose your own texts, and read the things you like, it can even be fun – not as much fun, I’ll grant you, as playing Nintendo or sports, riding bikes, hanging out with friends, or watching television, but it runs a close sixth, and hey, that’s not too shabby for something you do in school, right?

Getting Started

I listed two things – power and pleasure – that I think make reading worthwhile. What do you think? Why do people read? Why do you read? What makes reading worth all the time and effort? Why do people go crazy for Oprah’s Book Club? Why do so many people in our country feel that reading is essential to the welfare of our democracy and the health of our nation?