How to Read


Wallace_Books_DeLillo_002_smallWe all know that world-class writers write differently from the rest of us. What I didn’t know — at least until recently — was how differently some of them read.

Check out these links to the private books of two pretty fair writers: Mark Twain and David Foster Wallace. They’re worth exploring, because 1) it’s as thrillingly close as you’ll get to the engine room of their minds; and 2) because they provide a vivid (and for me, utterly humbling) lesson on how to truly read.

For most of us, reading is a “lean-back” experience; a warm bath. Not these guys. They’re on the balls of their feet, swords drawn. DFW and Twain  challenge, criticize, scribble new ideas, tease, steal, improve, admire. They fully engage with the work. It’s like a writer’s version of a vigorous athletic workout.  Because, I’d like to suggest, that’s precisely what it is: an intense firing of their circuitry; deep practice in excelsis.

On the surface, this seems like a small shift — after all, scribbling a quick note versus thinking a thought. But the act of writing is profoundly different than thinking because it forces precision and it creates a record that can be linked to other scribbles. These notes are a kind of playing field where thought happens; without the marks on the page, the thoughts float up and disappear.

In most circles, particularly schools, marking up books is discouraged, even forbidden. But should it be? With the possibilities of e-books, could this sort of sharp-pencil dueling be encouraged, even taught?

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12 Responses to “How to Read”

  1. Kent Bassett says:

    I love these posts. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Lorre says:

    This makes so much sense to me. I often have thoughts when reading and by making a note in the book I will be able to make the connection later and expound upon it. The pages will have so much more meaning if they are not kept pristine. Thanks!

  3. Arley says:

    My knee-jerk reaction regarding e-books was, “Without the convenience of a pencil, nobody will do it.” But on reflection, comments in the margins will be much better in e-books. You can find them again. You can link to other pages. You can share your thoughts, if you want.

    So I’ll modify my knee-jerk reaction: Those e-book reader tools that are designed to let the reader freely comment, link, copy, cut, paste, and share (share the comments, not the book), will be powerful tools for learning and discussing.

    Google Reader’s article sharing and commentary capabilities point in the right direction, but they really only work for web-based news articles, for now.

  4. djcoyle says:

    I think you’re exactly right, Arley. But I’ll miss the scrawling — which seems so much more visceral.
    I’ve messed around on a Kindle — not an iPad. Which devices are better for this kind of interaction?

  5. It also adds an often overlooked element of tactile learning to the activity of reading.

  6. Alexandra says:

    I feel lucky that I learned fairly early that this is how great writers think about books. But, no offense, it’s not necessarily in the scribbling of notes in the margins. It really IS in the thoughts themselves. It’s not as though you and everyone else and everyone else’s grandma actually have all of these thoughts, except you just don’t write them down. It’s that these intensely obsessive thoughts that come straight down to the meaning of a comma placement are in fact incredibly unusual in the first place.

    There are great writers who write all over their books. Their are great writers who would rather set their hair on fire than write on their precious books. It’s really NOT the annotation.

    I’m a writer. I do not think I am a particularly good writer, but I aim to be. Do you know what I do? Here’s an example of what I might do in an average week.

    Monday: Re-read first and last chapter of Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee to see how he opens and closes his light-on-plot, character-driven novel. Re-read again. Then just read first chapter twice. Then just read last chapter twice. Then write notes (outside of book, in my Holy Notebook That Nobody Else May Touch Or Even Breathe On, Thanks) detailing what purpose was served by each paragraph in the two chapters. Examine first and last chapter of my own unpublished novel. Switch paragraph 10 and paragraph 12. Take out a “Now” at the beginning of a sentence. Throw in a token paragraph between 20 and 27 to more firmly establish the main character’s history.

    Tuesday: Realize that I am having a difficult time intertwining the various minor plot threads in my novel into the dominant theme/plot point. Check out how the first chapter of Disgrace jumped from: prositute, musings on sex, explanation of main character’s career, internal musings on mc’s disappointment with his career, philosophical musings and commentary pulling this tightly together into prostitute scene still going on, etc. etc. etc. Make a little visual sort of chart of all topics covered, and how they’re covered, and how they connect. Change a few things in my own first chapter to be more tightly interwoven, with inspiration from chart.

    I don’t think I need to go on, do I.

  7. Alexandra says:

    Oh, also — I think it would be pointless and actually a bad choice/usage of time for anyone who doesn’t aspire to be an exceptional writer to spend time thinking books through with such intensity.

    And I do highlight and annotate bits in my eBooks. I feel like eBooks are akin to memorized passages — they’re a part of my own mind, or at least give the illusion of being so. Whereas paper books are separate solid objects.

  8. djcoyle says:

    I think you make some terrifically useful points, Alexandra. It IS the thoughts themselves that count, not the scribbles. Thanks for sharing the details on your methods, which points toward the next-level actions to which this can (should?) be taken — real analysis, planning, learning.

  9. K.A. says:

    I enjoyed reading your book awhile back, and was happy to find your blog today. Changing our approach to skill and “talent” makes me more optimistic about my own potential, but the flip side of the coin is that it has also forced me to grudgingly accept that some of what I thought was my innate giftedness is actually a result of the process you describe in The Talent Code.

    “Verbal intelligence”–whatever that may be–has always seemed to be my strong suit. But I think it’s a result of the environments I chose and a few lucky personal habits. I have always loved to read from a very young age, and if you look at any page with print on it that has gone through me, it resembles the picture above.

    It bums me out to realize that I’m not all that special. I just happened to gravitate toward useful habits.

  10. Raheel says:

    I was wondering what everyone thinks about speed reading. Do you guys think it would slow down or even halter the process of analyzing or learning. Does it even work? If so, how does it work, on the neurological level?

    Btw, I loved “The Talent Code” and all of its sciency information. I am a neuroscience major at the University of Pittsburgh and this information really intrigues me.


  11. djcoyle says:

    Great question. We’ve all heard claims about speed reading that make it sound like a miracle. And I think most of those claims are bunk — as shown here:
    Good luck with your studies. You are definitely going to be where the action is.

  12. Raheel says:

    Yeah, that article made it seem like it’s really not worth it. I’ll give it a try anyways. What’s there to lose? But I actually posed the question because of the fact that the company “eyeQ” used your book as neurological proof that speed reading is possible and not very hard to learn (thats where I learned about your book). You push yourself beyond your reading speed limits and the oligodendrocytes in your brain myelinate the neurons that help you comprehend words because of the fact that those neurons are firing like AK-47’s. I thought either you notified them about this fact or you were a speed reader yourself.

    I actually have met many people who were speed readers throughout high school. They could remember much more than anyone else after reading the same material, yet they would only read it once and faster than anyone else. Seemed mind boggling to me. Something to look into. I thought you would be the person to go to about these types of findings.

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