Thursday, August 26, 2010

Topic: Purpose in Reading (continued)

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in past professional English education journals.

10-second review: How I learned that I did not have to read every sentence from first page to last page.

This excerpt is taken from my book, Teaching English, How To…. By Raymond Stopper, Xlibris, July 2004, pp. 325-328.

[The situation: I had let a book go unread until the day before I was supposed to make a report on it. I almost decided not to make the report, but then I tried an experiment in reading.]

I opened the book and read the foreword. In a page and a half, the author summarized exactly what she was going to say in the book. I was surprised at how much I learned about her point of view from only a page and a half. Since my assignment was to summarize the author’s point of view toward Johnson’s writing and to respond to that point of view, I thought to myself that I could almost write the paper with just the information from the foreword.

Then another thought struck me. I was teaching my students to introduce their topics in opening paragraphs and to summarize in closing paragraphs—wouldn’t professional writers do the same? I decided to read the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter. As I did so, I began to realize that some chapters were more important than others, and I was learning about her supporting arguments. With some of those arguments, I needed more detail. Remembering that I taught students to begin paragraphs with topic sentences, I took the first “important” chapter and read just the first sentence of each paragraph, looking for the details of her main arguments.

I was becoming excited. In a relatively short time I was feeling confident that I knew the author’s argument. Since all I had to do in the speech was to give the major points of her arguments and then respond to them, I already felt that I knew almost enough to begin writing my speech. I quickly read the first sentences of paragraphs in the remaining three or four “important” chapters, and began to write.

Within an hour I was finished. The paper did not have to be typed until a later date. I had summarized the critic’s argument and then I had responded, somewhat sarcastically, to her point of view about Samuel Johnson. It was 11:00 p.m., and I was soon in bed, feeling wonderfully confident that I had accomplished what the instructor wanted from a review of this piece of literary criticism.

I still had a feeling of confidence when I moved behind the desk on the dais in that classroom at the university the next afternoon. I read my speech. I gave the author’s point of view in some detail, and then I launched into an attack on that point of view. You see, Samuel Johnson was one of my favorite authors, and I did not like at all the critic’s opinions of his writing and ideas.

Finished speaking, I stood, but was stunned when the entire class began to clap. The instructor, his face in a broad grin, said, “Mr. Stopper, that was an exquisite speech.” I almost sat down again, in complete disbelief. One thought kept running through my mind: “But I didn’t read the book.”

Of course I had read the book—enough to achieve my purpose. The book was not worth reading cover to cover. It was not a masterpiece of criticism of the work of Dr. Johnson. I read what I needed to read, found the gist of the author’s argument, and completed the task of responding to it. That’s what the professor wanted and that’s what I accomplished. I learned for the first time that all books do not have to be read from cover to cover and to do so could be a monumental waste of time. I now understood Francis Bacon’s advice about reading: “Some books are to be tasted….”

Maybe all of your students know not to try to read everything from cover to cover. Maybe some of them are like me, thinking I needed to read everything. Telling them about how you read could make them real scholars. RayS.

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