Once upon a time, I read Pride and Prejudice in a single day. Granted, we were in the car for over twelve hours straight, but still. It’s a disgrace to gulp a book like that so fast, and then to flippantly tell people that I’d “read it.” Oh, for a high school do over! One of the things I’ve been teaching myself over the past eight years of homeschooling is to read good books slowly. If I really want to grow in wisdom, I need to slow down and give myself time to reflect. Scholé isn’t a race, after all, and the word’s relation to rest cannot be underestimated. If I’m reading in fast-forward, very little has time to sink in. There are a number of disciplines that can help us slow down and read meditatively, with an aim toward wisdom rather than consumption.
When I first started my oldest child with the AmblesideOnline curriculum, I thought the pacing was painfully slow. It seemed to take forever to finish a book. What do you mean we only read one or two stories from this book per week? What do you mean this book is read over three years? This was totally foreign territory to me. But then something remarkable began to happen. I realized how much I was getting out of my children’s reading, when compared to my own reading. I began to experiment, and read my own books more slowly, and an amazing thing happened: I got more out of them. The interesting thing is that it wasn’t more facts. Those I was usually able to remember. It was the ideas, and the touching of my own heart. In a word, I began to care. In her book The Living Page, Laurie Bestvater writes in regard to reading and learning:
If we put the cart before the horse and seek only the knowledge and achievement without the caring, we may endanger both, participating in what Quentin Schultze aptly calls “informational promiscuity.”
Informational promiscuity. That was me. It was me with fiction and it was me with non-fiction. I was always ready to consume the next thing, but never stopping long enough to have my soul instructed. These days, I am very deliberate about pacing myself. I read a chapter — maybe two — at a time, and that is all. I put the book down. Do you know how hard that is? It’s incredibly hard, to deny my own appetite for more. But the growth I’ve experienced is more than worth it. The best things happen slowly.
I’ve always scribbled quotes into journals, but a year or two ago I finally reserved one single journal as a commonplace book and began copying over my favorite quotes. A commonplace book, in the strictest sense, is a book full of other people’s words. In it, we copy our favorite passages, along with a brief citation, so that we know where it came from. For me, I keep it that simple. I know others who also include journal entries of their thoughts. There are a whole bunch of variations. But for me, I’ve found that the book degenerates into a catch-all if I go beyond writing a quote + citation with only the occasional necessary notation on my part. When I mentioned commonplacing before, some of you asked about how we can find quotes later. I’ll be honest and say that I personally just hope for the best. For me, commonplacing is more about the process than the end product. It’s about paying more attention. The act of copying gets the passage and its meaning into my soul in a way that nothing else has. And science is now confirming what educational philosophers have known for a long time: there is something special about writing things out by hand. But if you need or want to keep an index, I think a simple one, perhaps one similar to the index for the bullet journal, would help. Just promise me one thing: don’t let any sense of an ideal commonplace book keep you from having a real one. To quote Laurie Bestvater again:
Our practice need not be perfect to begin to ripen us into people who see beyond what is to what ought to be, and who believe that in taking up these few postures of sustained attention we can and will be open to the mysterious transformation.
Narrating is the act of retelling something in our own words. In her book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, Karen Glass explains the origins of narration, pointing us to Erasmus, who wrote:
The master must not omit to set as an exercise the reproduction of what he has given to the class. It involves time and trouble to the teacher, I know well but it is essential. A literal reproduction of the matter taught is, of course, not required — but the substance of it presented in the pupil’s own way.
The art of retelling goes back even further in history, for Glass also quotes Quintillian on the value of paraphrasing. Narrating is a great way to come to know something well. Even a really brief, 30-second narration can have a great impact on retention. A narration can be completely in our minds. I’ve retold things to myself on my treadmill before, for example. They can be oral, as in when we tell a friend or family member about what we’ve read. Or they can be written. That is my favorite. Many of my blog posts began as written narrations.
Many books have their own indices, but you can make your own. If you’re reading a book — any genre of book — and you want to track certain themes or ideas, you can make your own index. Find a blank page and add your topic on the left. As you go along, list any pages where this theme comes up. This is just another way of building a more intimate relationship with a book. What’s especially fun is to do this over a number of readings. There are those certain books we’re never done reading, and we can continue to add to the index — new themes, or more page numbers. It’s interesting to see our understanding of the book grow over time.
This is, perhaps, my favorite. If I don’t do anything else, I do this. I underline, I star, I bracket entire paragraphs, and then I scribble my thoughts all over those margins. I might ask a question, write in a related quote from another book, or mark some other type of observation. It’s no matter. All of this is, in my mind, proof that my books are well-read and, therefore, well- loved.
Maximizing Time Spent Reading: When Slow Means Better
All of these examples are disciplines that can slow us down and ensure that we take in the entirety of each book. Our culture tells us to never waste time, and in the process we’ve grown into quick readers that possess only the shallowest of understandings when it comes to the books we read. Now, granted, not every book deserves this sort of attention. But we moms are always pressed for time, so my own solution has been to become very, very picky about the books I read, and then read them well.
It’s a resolution to drink from deeply from the well because, frankly, I need all the wisdom I can get.
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