What does being a reader mean?

Being a reader does not mean that you have to read all of the classics like Don Quixote or The Great Gatsby. It took me a long time to understand and accept this.

I agree that it helps to read the classics to understand the references made to them and to gain insight on what makes writing timeless.

When I became an English (Ed.) major, I chose the career out of love for reading and writing. I read young adult novels, and I wrote abstract emotional poetry. But what I didn’t know then was that I’d get to read all types of literature from different time periods.

I don’t even think that I knew that some books were considered classics. I was an oblivious first-year generation college student just meeting the course requirements.

I then found out that I didn’t like some of the classics or some of the most famous authors’ writing styles. It took effort to understand some works like Beowulf. This could have been lack of critical thinking on my part.

When I learned that the English Language we use today is not the same as it was centuries ago, I finally understood that because of these changes in the language, it took effort to understand some texts like Shakespeare’s sonnets and Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

I also found out that sometimes writers believed that through writing they must show or prove how smart or intellectual they are. I found the following quote in the book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup:

Generations of students have struggled with dense writing, many thinking they weren’t smart enough to grasp a writer’s ideas. Some have been right about that, but more could have blamed the writer’s inability (or refusal) to write clearly. Many students, sad to say, give up; sadder still, others learn not only to read that style but to write it, inflicting it in turn on their readers, thereby sustaining a 450-year-old tradition of unreadable writing.

This quote reminded me of all the times I’ve felt unintelligent when reading books, essays, and articles. I agree that it’s important to read writing that challenges us to a certain extent. This helps practice and strengthen those critical thinking skills ;). I admit that I can get very lazy with this.

Yet, I find myself at home when I read writing that keeps me, the reader, in mind. The writing that doesn’t require me to look up the meaning of a word every couple of sentences. The writing that allows me to take breaths and to admire the beauty of simplicity and conciseness.

When I worked at a library, a patron once told me that she’d just retired from teaching. She said she now had extra time to read trashy novels. I admired her for admitting this. She didn’t want to curl up with a blanket and a warm beverage to reread a classic. She just wanted to read.

For a long time, I thought that a reader was a reader when they were well-read, when they read every day, and when they could list names of classics and names of esteemed writers.

I’ve been in a reading slump for a long time. I used to devour books. Reading books felt like a competition. I asked myself: How many books can I read in a week, in a month, in a year? I don’t have the craving to be a reader of books anymore. I sometimes blame my short attention span and lack of interest or motivation.

Within this reading slump, I’m redefining what being a reader means to me: There are times when readers don’t read, and that’s okay.

What does being “a reader” mean to you? I’m also curious to know: What gets you out of a long-term reading slump?


Note: I’m planning to catch up on blog reading this weekend. We started state testing today, Wednesday, and we’ll be testing through the rest of the week. So there’s been changes in everyone’s schedules, added stress, etc. After today’s first day of testing, I’m thinking the next two days will probably flow better. See you then!

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13 thoughts on “What does being a reader mean?

  1. Yes, I agree with you about the comical quality of Don Quixote. Also, I found books about Don Quixote in Madrid in which I discovered that in his book Cervantes in a way created modern fiction, in terms of relations between reality and imagination on the page.

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    1. I also read “Don Quixote” in translation as a teenager, now that you mention it — partly because I’d seen the musical “Man of LaMancha” and wanted to get in touch with “the original.” I agree that it’s comical, but you have to edit out the deliberately somewhat stilted translation to appreciate that — at least in the old Signet edition.

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  2. I was always an advanced reader — able to read names and words before I started kindergarten — so I’ve always been an avid reader of just-about-anything. Since my mother was, at the time, an equally avid reader, I got lots of her hand-me-downs, many of which qualified as — maybe not “trashy” novels, exactly (except for stories involving demonic possession), but certainly “middlebrow” ones. It never occurred to me at the time not to like them, or to look down on them, though one of my high-school teachers suggested that I wasn’t reading enough of “quality.” I did read some “great literature” on my own, though I preferred foreigners-in-translation to the canonical British and American writers. (To this day, I can’t really penetrate Thomas Hardy or Henry James; funny thing is, I never blamed myself for the problem! And, while I find Dickens easier and more engaging, I need patience for his detail and sheer length.)

    Oddly, I never had to read anything too dense or boring in my high-school and college English courses, which introduced me to Fitzgerald and Hemingway (I preferred Fitzgerald), Borges (whom I found too abstruse), and other high-profile authors. I’d already read “1984” and “Animal Farm” before I ever got to Orwell in school.

    I agree that the reader should occasionally be “challenged”; I prefer, however, to be challenged by nonfiction of various types — biographies, history, or the easier end of the sciences. As an adult, I’ve particularly savored books that explore some historical event or phase — McCarthyism, say, or the Treaty of Versailles — in detail beyond what they told us in school. (Not that I remember much when I finish such books. But I do enjoy reading them.)

    But I think the most important thing is, as you suggest, to _enjoy_ reading, and not to get too uptight about exactly what books you read. Schlock novels are fine — though it’s hard to find a well-written schlock novel!

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this topic! Sounds like you’ve had an abundance of experiences that have shaped your life as a reader. You were introduce to a lot of quality books and writers from a very young age. What foreigners-in-translation do you recommend? I feel the same way when I read nonfiction books. I always enjoy learning from them, but I end up forgetting some details.

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      1. Well, I always enjoyed the Russians: I considered Dostoyevsky “heavier” (I suppose I’d now say emotionally more dense) and Tolstoy longer but “lighter” (more like soap opera). I also enjoyed what little of Turgenev I read — maybe just “Fathers and Sons.”

        I didn’t read Italians in translation until later; in high school, I read a few German philosophers in translation, but no fiction. (When I’ve tried Hesse, I’ve found him rough going.) As for the French, I developed a strong competence in French (for both speaking and reading) in high school; so, although I liked French literature, I rarely read it in translation. (I hardly ever read it in the originals, either — it would have taken more concentration than I could muster, say, on the bus!)

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      2. I took a Russian literature course two summers ago, and even though we read mostly short stories, I genuinely enjoyed that class. I remember reading stories like “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. Yeah, I totally see the benefit of reading literature in its original languages.

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  3. I’m a voracious reader. When I was younger I read 3 or 4 books a week – all kinds – tons of magazines, etc. Now I don’t have as much time available so I’m a little more thoughtful in choosing what I read, but I still love it just as much. It’s always been my refuge. I prefer reading to watching TV. I’ve never been in a slump, per se, but at times have been too busy to read very much, and I’ve also gone through periods in which suddenly I wanted to read something completely different than what I usually read, so I spent time scouring library shelves and trying different genres and authors. Sometimes I’m in the mood for “difficult” authors, but when I’m tired or challenged by life, I read mysteries or something that requires less brain power. My guess is that you’re just too busy and distracted by other things in your life right now, and that reading requires too much concentration and precious energy, especially if you think of it as a competition and not just something to be enjoyed. Great post about one of my favorite things! Thanks!

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    1. I relate to you on taking some time on deciding what to read. I usually do a bit of searching online about a book’s ratings and reviews before I decide to invest time to read it. I love how you scour the library shelves. I think that it’s important to do that more often. (For me, sometimes I find it easier to place holds online, but searching the shelves is always an interesting experience. Especially when finding picks that I wouldn’t have found had I searched online only.)

      Thank you for pointing out the “competition” side of my reading habits. I think this is probably something that sucked the joy of the reading experience. Have you heard of booktube on Youtube? I think that because I followed booktubers for a while book reading became a competition. Booktubers would share how many books they read in their monthly wrap-ups and would sometimes make me feel like I didn’t read enough.

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on being a reader!

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      1. I’ve never heard of Booktube. I think comparing yourself to anyone else for anything sucks the joy out of whatever it is very quickly. Let your love of reading guide you and you’ll find your way back. 🙂

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  4. I have enjoyed this post very much. I like how your thinking comes through in your sentences and paragraphs. For years I have asked myself what does it mean to me to be a reader. One consistent inner response has been that, as a writer, reading is the imaginative, the mental food I need to write each and every day. I picture a reader inside of me the writer, who whispers in my ear, so to speak, while I write. In my opinion, the reader in me knows best. I don’t experience (knock on wood) long-term reading slumps, perhaps because I start each day by reading in Spanish for an hour (which is my way of not losing contact with the language that I spent many years learning).

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I love your conclusion that the reader knows you best & the connection between reading and writing. I relate to the reader in me knowing me best when I’m editing/revising. I think that the reader in me knows when I’m not being truthful or when there is more to share in my journal writing. That’s when I find myself thinking: I can add one more detail here, or I need to use a different word here because this word doesn’t feel like the best/right word to use in a sentence or paragraph.

      I also admire you for making the effort to not lose contact with the Spanish language through reading. The comments on this post make me wonder how I would have turned out a different type of reader had may parents/family been readers. You response in particular, makes me wonder if I’d be a reader of books in Spanish today (which I’m not) had my parents been readers (their native language is Spanish). Do you have any authors or books you recommend in Spanish?

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      1. Thank you for your thoughtful words. I wish I had made more of an effort to learn Norwegian, which is my mom’s native language and that of most of my relatives. I struggled a lot with Spanish at the beginning, when I moved to Madrid, because my childhood and adolescent problems with stuttering returned and some days in Spanish class it took me for what felt like forever to utter a single sentence. And I made it! I think we grow as readers (at least I have) and learn to read in ways that we wouldn’t have dreamed of before (e.g., now I write in the margins and sometimes spend much time with a single paragraph, which fifteen years ago I probably wouldn’t have). I am always hesitant to recommend books. My favorite Spanish author is the novelist Javier Marías. He has influenced me as a writer in significant ways. His wikipedia page is: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Javier_Mar%C3%ADas. I should warn you that he is difficult to read, either in Spanish or in English translation. The first time I opened one of his books, I thought: what is this? His sentences and paragraphs can be Proustian in length. Don Quixote by Cervantes is one of my favorite Spanish books. There is so much in it for any reader and writer to learn.

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      2. I’m glad you made it! I relate to growing as a reader. What has helped me is focusing on a chapter or page and rereading the parts that stand out to me because of the writing style or a gem of information. When I read too many chapters at a time I’ve felt that I don’t take in as much. I will check out Javier Marias. Thank your for sharing! I find it interesting to learn about writers’ influences and how the influence shows in writing. I’ve read excerpts from Don Quixote, and when I first read it, I’d never read something like it. I remember loving its comical quality.

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