Letters to an 8th Grade Student: How To Read a Book

I recently read Jamie Smith’s fantastic Letters to a Young Calvinist. I read it because Drew recommended it. In particular, he indicated that Smith uses the book to make a case for the continental reformed tradition as a more winsome, more hopeful, more poetic alternative to the grim and dour English reformed tradition. And one doesn’t have to go far to see this point. The Westminster Standards (at least the Confession and the Larger & Shorter Catechisms) are stark and rigid in their communication about God’s sovereignty and election. In contrast, the Three Forms of Unity (esp. the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) are winsome, poetic, and a bit more flexible. I do not think there is much substantive theological difference between the two groups, but their tone and attitude diverge widely.

Anyhow, Smith (who himself was inspired by Christopher Hitchens‘s Letters to a Young Contrarian) has inspired me to take up a writing project in the same vein. That is, I intend to publish here a series of blog posts in the form of Letters to an 8th Grade Student. This project should allow me the opportunity to actually reflect on my educational philosophy and to imagine the kind of advice I wish a teacher had given me at that age.

* * *

Dear ______,

Welcome to 8th grade! I am incredibly pleased to make your acquaintance and I cannot wait to dive into the year with you. As you have probably realized from glancing at the syllabus (and the pile of books I put on your desk this morning), the majority of this class is structured around reading books and then responding to those books.

You may be confused at my use of the word “respond.” Most people treat books like flavors of ice cream (I like chocolate, but I don’t really like pistachio) or as a mine (sifting through tons of dirt to find precious metal). But books are not really like that. Or, more properly speaking, they shouldn’t be like that. A book is not primarily something to be tasted and then either loved or discarded, nor is it a repository of the “important information” buried beneath layers of other words. Rather, a book is a person. Or, maybe, and imprint of a person.

Now, I know, I know. Books are not people. They can’t think or talk or do yoga. But, and this is the truth I am really aftfig1er here, books are not at all concerned with you directly. To quote Rick Warren, “It’s not about you.” Books are extensions of the authors who wrote them. They speak with human voices and, like (most) humans, they do not speak only to hear themselves talk! And here we find ourselves discovering the most important rule when it comes to reading: a written work is always addressed to an audience. So, at the very least, the act of reading requires one to apprehend the text, discover who wrote it, and to whom it was written. The interplay between these three factors (text, author, and audience) is often called by scholars the Rhetorical Situation and is usually diagramed as a triangle, with meaning sitting in the middle between the three points.

Often, of course, your understanding of who a book is written to will be imperfect. Or, even if you have a good idea, you will struggle to understand the perspective of the audience because, almost certainly, you are not a member of the intended audience. This is not to say, of course, that you can’t find great meaning in such a book. Rather, to the contrary, you can! But only if you are willing to admit that you are essentially eavesdropping on those from long ago or far away or, at any rate, in a specific rhetorical situation to which you are but a bystander, the odd shape, if you will, observing the seamless interplay of the triangle.

Now, the kinds of books we will be reading in this class are largely part of the genre called “Great Books,” and these Great Books are great (in part) because they possess universal appeal. Imagine trying to read a German children’s book about Klaus, a young boy who struggles to enjoy sour kraut. Even if you read it in translation, it is not going to make a whole lot of sense because of the vast cultural differences between you and the average German child. A Great Book, on the other hand, is a book that, though it is certainly specific to a time and place, speaks deeply and profoundly to the truths of the human experience. The central question that you should ask as you read these books is “What, then, does it mean to be human?”

I know that question is a tall order. You may not understand what is happening much less why it is so important. However, you must enter into your time of reading with a kind of holy contract: you will assume that there are great truths to be uncovered, whether you grasp what is happening or not. Which leads us to the second rule of reading: you must submit yourself to the book under consideration. What I mean by this is manifold, but it primarily means two things. First, recognize that it is your job to understand why the book you are reading is a Great Book. You must assume that when you and the book “disagree,” as it were, you are almost certainly the one in the wrong. Second, willingly suspend your disbelief. Act and think as if the world of the story is the true one and the world you inhabit is the flawed one.

I realize that though I promised to teach you how to read in this letter, all I have done is make statements about what kind of attitude you should have as you read. So here’s the deal. If a book is the imprint of a person addressed to certain other people, and if you are not an official member of the people to whom the work is addressed, then you enter into the conversation as best you can by immediately accepting the world of the book. However, and this is where the how comes in, you are going to have to do some work.

Yes, I said “conversation” in the previous paragraph. And I mean that! If a book is saying something, then it is entirely appropriate to talk back! Of course, attempting to engage a book in oral conversation is likely to lead to failure. But (fortunately) you don’t have to resort to that! Instead, you should take notes in your book. This is the practice of annotation, and this is how readers talk back to the books they are reading. Understanding what a person says is only half the conversation. You have to use your brain (and pencil) to supply the other half.

Annotation can take many forms, but the main point is to say something worthwhile that actually advances the conversation begun by the book you are reading. The easiest (and least valuable if used in excess) kind of annotation involves making marks on the page. Unless you have a clear system here, you are only going to confuse yourself. I typically circle phrases or words that stand out to me, underline lengthier passages that I feel are important, and place a star in the margin next to the absolutely most important things I want to remember. All of these should be used sparingly (after all, if the entire book is underlined, then none of it is really underlined), but the star most of all. Be sure to also keep a list (whether in the back of your book or on a separate sheet of paper) of the stars you have made and their page numbers.

But, the real heart of annotating is not making marks. It is in making comments! At first, you may have trouble thinking of anything to say. After all, the book is not specifically addressed to you. Start by writing down questions you have about what is happening (and be sure to answer those questions later when you figure them out!), any predictions about what may happen later, anything you notice that connects to anything in your previous experience (whether your life, other books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, etc), and anything that stands out to you for whatever reason. Make it your job to to walk away from a book satisfied that you have pushed it as far as you can. Oh, and by the way, feel free to leave out annotations like “wow” or “ugh.” While your emotional reactions to the book are valid, they are not very useful for the conversations you will have and the essays you will write which are based on your annotations and analysis of the book.

Well, that’s “how to read” in a nutshell. I hope it proves useful to you. Be sure to let me know if you have any questions or thoughts by return letter.

faithfully yours,

Mr. Jeffers