Lori's Book Nook

A Reading Lesson

Posted on: July 16, 2006

Through my weekly email from Questia, this morning I rediscovered Robertson Davies‘ essay entitled “A Reading Lesson” — found in one of his early collections of essays. I can’t link to the Questia site for you, as it is one of those pay sites (US$99/year) with access to amazing amounts of scholarly & literary texts, backed up by some useful tools. In their words:

Questia is the world’s largest online library of books, with over 67,000 full-text books, 1.5 million articles, and an entire reference set complete with a dictionary, encyclopedia, and thesaurus. Your subscription to the entire Questia academic library also includes digital productivity tools for highlighting text, taking notes, and generating footnotes and bibliographies in seven different styles.

I believe it would be a useful tool, if it were something I needed. But go there anyway, sign up for their weekly newsletter, that gives you temporary access to the texts mentioned in the newsletter.

Back to my favourite author, Robertson Davies. I have a shelf devoted to his writing in my library. I will give you excerpts from this essay below:

You then read your book, somewhat more slowly than modern educationists recommend. Remember, you are trying to find out what the book has to say. You are not straining to reach the end, in order that you may read something else. If you don’t like the book, you do not have to read it. Put it aside and read something you do like, because there is no reason at all why you should read what bores you during your serious reading time. You have to read enough boring stuff in the ordinary way of life, without extending the borders of ennui. But if you do like the book, if it engages you seriously, do not rush at it. Read it at the pace at which you can pronounce and hear every word in your own head. Read eloquently.


Verbalizing is also one of the best critical procedures. If you meet with a passage in a book that seems to be in some way dubious or false, try reading it aloud, and your doubts will be settled. The trick of argument or the falsity of emphasis, will declare itself to your ear, when it seemed to be deceiving your eye.


Reading to hear, rather than merely to comprehend, explains much about the poetry of earlier days. Old ballads, which seem somewhat simple-minded, with their bleak stories and their repeated refrains, when they pass over the eye, leap into vivid life when they are heard, because they belong to a tradition of poetry that had not renounced the delights of rhyme, rhythm, and the quality of incantation that our distant forebears valued in poetry.


What I have just said about rereading is a point I should like to stress. The great sin, as I have said, is to assume that something that has been read once has been read forever. As a very simple example I mention Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. People are expected to read it during their university years. But you are mistaken if you think you read Thackeray’s book then; you read a lesser book of your own. It should be read again when you are 36, which is the age of Thackeray when he wrote it. It should be read for a third time when you are 56, 66, 76, in order to see how Thackeray’s irony stands up to your own experience of life.


Certainly I have not flogged you on to feats of endurance and intellectual stress. Quite the contrary, I have urged you to relax, to read more slowly, to reread books that speak to you with special intimacy, to act out your fictions in your minds, as if you were a great theatrical director with infinite choice in casting, in decor, in all the adjuncts that produce a convincing atmosphere.

If you’ve ever read any of Davies’ books, then you’ll see that he wrote as he read, with care and attention, and reading every word aloud.

2 Responses to "A Reading Lesson"

Interesting trick this reading aloud–I tried it with a speech by Mad Emperor George, but gave up when the stink in the room became too much.

I’m going to try it with some Hunter Thompson works, but first I want to rivet myself to something solid, just in case.

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Book Discussion Pages

Here on the Book Nook you can discuss: The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, as well as the next two books in the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders, and if that's not enough for you, see what's up on the forums at BookTalk.org!
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