In more literate circles today, it is a common thing to hear people sighing over reading being a lost art. In general, I tend to agree with the sentiment: the majority approach to reading is not what it was a hundred or two hundred years ago. On the other hand, like most nostalgic sentiments, it is not entirely true. Two hundred and three hundred years ago, books were hardly accessible to the general working public - the Enlightenment was significant precisely because of its impact on the dissemination of literature. Books are familiar things to us now.
And besides that, the fact of the matter is that there are still many people nowadays who do read. Some while ago in a doctor's waiting room I noticed a mother and her son, both with their noses in books. Naturally I thought, "Ah ha! Good habits, good habits!" ...Then I managed to get a glimpse of the covers and found that she was reading Fifty Shades of Gray, and he was reading Catching Fire. Now, I have nothing against the Hunger Games series (though personally I thought him too young for it), but the combination was disheartening in the extreme. It is symptomatic of the "just as long as they're reading" philosophy - as though there were something essentially soul-bettering about the practice of taking in words off a page. Pinterest says so, so it must be true!
Pinterest aside, there is nowhere that this trend is more noticeable than on a site like Goodreads. I like Goodreads. I like keeping track of what I read, and when I read it, and what I thought about it at the time; sometimes I'll even go back later and realize my opinion has changed. But like most such websites, the practice of adding books, seeing your "bookshelves" grow, and preening over the amount of books read in a year becomes addictive, and the emphasis is frequently on numbers. If I just read 50 instead of 30 books a year, I will be smarter - or at least I'll look smarter, and hey, that's what counts. So readers tear through heaps of young adult novels or children's books, some of them good, some of them bad, most of them fluff and most of them forgotten too soon. The magic seems to be in the reading, not in the books.
This is not the attitude we ought to have when we read. Naturally, there are times when we need to relax with a light story, even a children's book; there is nothing wrong with allowing the brain a rest and a pick-me-up, anymore than there is something wrong with sitting down with a good movie after a tiring day. But this pattern should not be characteristic of our lives. Our list of books-read should not be 80, or 70, or even 60% composed of fluff.
Reading is not an automatic process by which we gain wisdom. The words and books themselves are what exercise the mind, and in the words of another quote that pops up frequently on the internet: "One must always be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us." We should not approach reading with a philosophy of carelessness, and we ought to think more than we do about what books we spend time reading. I am not talking about "bad" books, because most of us accept that concept: I mean the average, the fluff, the entertaining and non-taxing reads that can be whipped through in three days max and which thus teach us absolutely nothing about perseverance. Methinks, too, that Mr. Darcy would not consider this to be "improving our minds by extensive reading."
Half the moral, then, is that more books does not necessarily mean more knowledge and wisdom. We must first take care in what we read, and then (the other half of the moral) how we read. Just as everyone has his own method of writing, everyone will have his own method of reading; these are a few of the tactics I employ.
Note that by genre I do not mean the difference between YA dystopian and YA fairytale, but something more like the difference between a biography, a fantasy, and a classic. Goodreads' "shelves" are helpful in this respect, allowing me to have different categories for history, historical-fiction, fantasy, classics, mystery, what-have-you. A quick glance at the list of recent reads is enough to tell me that my last-book-but-one was a fantasy, the previous a mystery, and it is time for something rather more sizable. I am not strict in this respect; my reading pace keeps me varied. But if I find myself jaded in reading, it is generally due to an overemphasis of either light or heavy reads, and a switch is good for the brain.
try not to rush
I confess, when I get toward the end of a book I tend to speed up - because nothing beats the thrill of finishing, especially a long and weighty book. But rushing does not help cement it in my mind, so I have to force myself to go slow and actually think about what I read.
Yes, the actual topic of this post! I know many readers scorn and deride this, feeling that it somehow desecrates the book, but it is extremely helpful - the practice, like the repetition of a sentence, sinks it more deeply into the reader's mind. And, too, it leaves the reader's mark on the book; I don't know about you, but I like to see what passages stood out to previous readers, and I like to feel myself continuing the trend. I tend not to underline in novels simply because it brings me out of the flow of the story-world, but if there is a section I want to remember, I can always write it down in a notebook for reference.
After finishing and publishing this post, I realized I had made an unforgivable omission (I blame the headache entirely). There is a fourth and final step to my approach to reading, which Goodreads also assists in - reason #25 to like the site! When I finish a book, I almost always write up a brief review: summarizing what I liked, what I didn't, and what, in general, I really gleaned from the pages. It is for myself, not for other readers, so I tend to be quite subjective here. I try to keep it short and to the point, and I also try to make it fair, level-headed, and as peaceable as I can - even with a horrible book, there is no excuse for a rage-fest. No reader should revel in atrocities, nor revel in making fun of them.
Another part of this process for me is reviewing the book on the review site I help run, Squeaky Clean Reviews. These are much more in depth, and as I try here to be more objective in my conclusion, it is really the more helpful of the two; I find that a book I review here sticks with me in much more clarity than a book I merely acknowledge on Goodreads. There's a reason we had to do book reports in school, and when done correctly, it is as enjoyable and satisfying as it is helpful. My course for literature this year is entirely on Shakespeare and includes detailed essays on each work as I complete it. I still wouldn't call myself a real Shakespearean enthusiast, but I really do enjoy the process, and I am certain it has helped me engage and understand the writing far more than I would otherwise. You may not consider it a fun idea, but I would encourage you to give it a shot and see if it helps you retain the book more thoroughly.