There is a reading program in the public school system that I despise: Accelerated Reader. Of course, the name sounds all smart and stuff. But don’t let the name fool you. The students take a computerized test to determine their reading levels. They are then assigned a color that corresponds to their capabilities. The books in the school all have colored stickers on the spine that indicate their reading level. The children are told that they are to read only the books that match to their tested and approved color. After they read their book, they take a comprehension test on the computer and receive points for their scores.
I fight this every year. If you want to grow as a reader, you must read above your reading level. And while comprehension is important, so is learning. We don’t stop where we don’t understand, we actively engage to grow in our understanding. There are methods we can employ to grow in our comprehension. My point is, we need to be challenged to grow, not coddled and encouraged to stay where we are. I’d rather my child read a book they don’t completely understand and work hard for a “B” grade than get an “A” reading something that is easy for them. Sure, sometimes it’s okay and even good to read material that comes easy, but to grow in understanding we must read from someone smarter than ourselves.
Same goes for adults.
So often I see people start a book, only to neglect finishing it because they think it is over their head, or just plain above their reading level. It may have been a topic that they were really interested in, and they might have even been excited about the particular author. But as soon as they stumble over a concept taught in it, they conclude that this book just isn’t for them. I want to say, maybe this book is exactly for them—for that reason! Instead it would be good to think, “This book is over my head, maybe I could really grow in my understanding from reading it.”
But this requires an active engagement from the reader. In their great book, How to Read A Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren compare the reader to the catcher in a baseball game. Just because the catcher is the receiver of the pitch doesn’t mean that their job is inactive. These authors teach the reader how to do this (I know, the irony of reading a book to learn how to read…).
Adler and Van Doren teach about different levels of reading. In their chapter on inspectional reading, the authors explain that sometimes our expectations are set too high when we pick up a difficult book, and we mistakenly give up when we realize those expectations won’t be met. When up against a book that is “over our head,” they recommend doing a superficial reading of the entire book. Look, you just might not get full comprehension the first time through. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot grow in your understanding. So their rule is:
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. (36)
Just keep reading. Read through the parts that you may not grasp, and eventually you will find some balls that you can catch. They encourage the reader to concentrate on those sections that you do understand.
Keep on this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments and references that escape you. If you let yourself get stalled, if you allow yourself to be tripped up by any one of these stumbling blocks, you are lost. In most cases, you will not be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You will have a much better chance understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. (36-37)
What? A second time? Yes! Read the stinking book again, and the understanding that you gained in the first run through will help you with your second date, that will hopefully be less superficial. But, Adler and Van Doren promise that even the superficial reading alone can be enlightening. “And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to” (37).
This is the same thing a fitness trainer would tell you about surviving one of their workouts for the first time. You may not complete the duration of each exercise. You might look like a wimp and take too many water breaks. Your push-ups may be laughable at first. Heck, you might even puke. But if you persevere to the end, you have taken a great step in increasing your fitness level. You’re body is beginning to change. Sometimes it hurts. Get over it. You’ll do better the next time. And the one after that.
Don’t be satisfied with color-coded stickers telling you what books you can read. There’s no acceleration going on when you’re stagnant. Read up.