On Being a Good Reader

I was approaching 50 when I decided to return to university full-time to study for an MA. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! I loved the time I had to read and the freedom to choose what to read. I loved the library. I loved reading books and articles, following trails of references, browsing among the journals, discussing what I had read with my fellow students. I was impressed by the librarian and she has since become a very good friend. I learned the pleasures of reading, following an idea, chasing up more ideas, being a serious reader.

One of the things I love about blogging is the research that it necessitates: for images, biographical details, finding obscure facts and quirky opinions. I recaptured some of the earlier pleasure of studying when I came upon the idea of the good reader and decided to follow it up. It necessitated reserving a library book!

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

I had enjoyed Howards End is on the Landing, so was pleased when my sister gave me a copy of Jacob’s Room. She said it was ‘a bit like a blog only all at once’, which is good description. I found myself taking notes of things to follow up, especially related to Muriel Spark, who’s centenary is this year, and I have already joined in a readalong with a review of Memento Mori.

She also reflected on Vladimir Nabokov’s literary criticism, and his description of a good reader. Here are her thoughts:

A good reader pays attention to everything. The surface of the prose. The structure of the book. The tense. The point of view. Perhaps to those even before the characters. Then comes the setting. The story can often come last. (145)

For many, many readers the statement that ‘the story can often come last’ would be incomprehensible. It will not surprise you that for Susan Hill a good reader often rereads.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s comments had influenced Susan Hill, so I decided to look them up. This required a library reservation, which always makes me feel like a serious reader! It’s a big heavy book, fetched from Exeter Library Stack (whatever that means). Big heavy books also make me feel like a serious reader. I can be so facile.

Susan Hill’s reference was to Nabokov’s introductory lecture: Good Readers and Good Writers. What does Nabokov say makes a good reader? Well, he identifies first those who approach reading to support their emotions, to recall their own past, to identify with the characters. This, he says, is reading of a ‘comparatively lowly kind’ (4). His good reader, on the other hand, approaches the book with the willingness and the imagination to enter the world created by the writer.

We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. … The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. (4-5)

And he remarks on the necessity of rereading to be a good reader, to appreciate the three facets of a good writer: magic, story and lesson. In the lectures he goes on to show how this is done by Charles Dickens in Bleak House and Jane Austen in Mansfield Park among others.

A good reader?

It seems that the good reader is one who pays attention to more than the story in a book, who pays attention to how the story is told. For many people this is more than they want from their reading, and that does not make them bad readers of course.

I think in the terms of the two writers referred to here, who are also prolific readers, I do not count as a very good reader. But I am working on it. And I intend to go on by studying the world-building of writers (and paying attention to it in my own writing) and I plan to do more rereading.

New Book by Harold Harvey 1920

And I think I will still leave space to read for the story, for comfort and also to read with that lowly kind of imagination that means I am an emotional reader in Nabokov’s terms.

I will also practice being aloof. Writers need loofs. (Old joke).


Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: a year of reading by Susan Hill (2017) Profile Books. A gift from a sister.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Fredson Bowers (1980) Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The library book.


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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries

14 Responses to On Being a Good Reader

  1. Oh wow! I enrolled for an MA at 42 and thought I was late. I just entered the second year and having the time of my life reading such stuff. It is good to read this and will be back for more.

    • Caroline

      Great to hear from another no so older student. I went on to be course leader of the MA I had studied, and got a doctorate. It’s never to late, although it may be more acceptable in some disciplines than others. I was studying education.
      Hope all goes well and you will go on studying beyond the second year.

  2. Lots to think about from this post, thank you.

  3. Gill Cox

    I am the leader of a Book Group within the U3a and On Being a Good Reader comes at a very good time as I am feeling that we are not getting as much out of our monthly read, as we could/should. We read a really wide range of novels and there are members of the 20-strong group who do delve deeper, but many of us do not get much further than – basically – “this is a really good book” or “not for me” …. As leader I have questions for us but there is little take-up (I am just an enthusiastic reader, not an academic one). A friend has just given me Susan Hill’s “Jacob’s Room ….” and that, together with Caroline’s thoughts, give me the incentive to try harder …..

    • Caroline

      Hi Gill. Welcome back.
      Perhaps a discussion of a what a good reader is, or the book I read best? It is hard to know how to discuss books without some models, or HE experience of Eng Lit. I think Susan Hill has done a good job setting the tone.
      Hope it goes well. They are lucky to have such a good reader as you to lead them.

  4. Margaret Guest

    If there is anything I enjoy as much as books about bookshops (ref your recent blog), it is books about books! Jacob’s Room was one of my favourite books from last year, and I ordered it as soon as I read about it simply because of Howards End is on the Landing.

    I love fiction, but I find that the older I get the more non-fiction I read and own. Perhaps that comes with age?

    Like Susan Hill, I am a fan of re-reading favourite books. Besides, with a really good book there is always something more to discover.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Margaret. Yes, me too I love books about books. I think I did a post on that ages ago. Perhaps it’s time for a second one!
      If you like non-fiction you might like the Decades Project on this blog: one book for each decade since 1900 per month.
      Some of those are rereading for me.

  5. Anne Gore

    I get very caught up with the narrative……I need to know what happens particularly if I suspect that there is an unhappy ending to cope with. Therefore I often read a book through twice in succession. The first time to get the narrative sorted out and then when that is out of the way…. to reread and appreciate the finer points of the writing. Does anyone else do this?

    • Caroline

      Sounds like a good strategy, focus on the story on a first reading and then look at other aspects of the novel. I know that some of the readers in one of my reading groups do this. I’m always dashing on to the next book, although I have been enjoying rereading many books in the last 12 months.
      I know of readers who read the end first. That way they can focus on the writing.

  6. Great post, it reminds me of the life long discovery of why we read what we read and how that changes and evolves (if it does). My grandmother used to only read books with the red dots at the library, red dot was Mysteries, I remember thinking well that’s great, I wonder where my aisle is and what colour my books are? I could never find them, they didn’t fit easily into a genre and so I’ve been trying ever since to understand how to very simply describe what I both enjoy and seek in a book. For it’s not always anticipated enjoyment of the traditional kind, curiosity leads us to some testing literary hang outs.

    I like a book that is thought provoking, that makes me reflect on its purpose or intention, that can be seen as entertainment or can be analysed to dig deeper into its themes, to offer a jigsaw of connections, threads – the reader is free to pursue those tings or leave them be.

    I’m often curious as to how, how does one writer evoke character so brilliantly and convincingly and with others they stay two dimensional. Why did they choose that narrative perspective? That structure? Why did I have no response at all to this novel, what was that feeling of detachment and how was it created.

    I try to answer these questions, rather than use glib responses, but I also realise that they say as much if not more about me, than they do the book or the writer. So I’m not sure about the concept of a good reader, I think it’s not quite the correct question. I ask what is it about me as a reader that demands certain things from a book? What do I demand from a book and why?

    • Caroline

      Glad you found this post interesting. Quite a few people have commented on different aspects.
      I was challenged in one of my reading groups yesterday about a novel about a C17th painter. I had complained that it occasionally used modern phrases, which I found distracting. The challenge was, are you looking for a biography in fiction? Because I have thought about this recently my response was that I hoped to be shown the world of the painter, but from a C17th time.
      It is so hard to write fiction that challenges the reader. I do believe that good fiction deserves good readers.
      So glad to find other readers who want to be challenged by their reading and to look for good fiction.
      Hope to read many more comments from you about future posts (and ones from the past if you wish!().

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