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Friday, October 29, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 1

This is the first of a series on reading skills.  

I have written and taught about listening skills, thinking skills and communication skills throughout my career as an academic pediatrician. They became part of my Handbook of Clinical Skills (World Scientific Publishers, 2011) and Thinking Skills for the Digital generation (Springer, 2017). But I have not shared my thoughts on reading and reading skills. I have learnt much about reading skills from reading, listening to great listeners and, also through the process of reading itself.  I wish to share them with the future generation.

Reading skills, like other skills, can be developed and honed. Neuroplasticity makes it possible.

There have been books on How to Read by masters such as Mortimer Adler and many books on reading for children. There are books on speed reading. They are too formal and academic. They are based on scholarly studies.  Mine is a practical one based completely on my practices and documenting what I gained from those practices. They may or may not help others. Yet, I wish to share what I gained by specific practices.

I am sure there are many people who have read plenty and have developed their own skills but who have not written about them. Here I am, either too bold or just plain foolish.

Reading is one of the most pleasurable and useful habits one can develop. It is like a whole new world being opened before you – and that is literally true. I remember vividly how ecstatic our son was when he went to the library soon after he learned to read and came home with a bunch of books.  As pointed out by Carl Sagan   “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”

Other famous quotes on reading I found to be true by personal experience are:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” – Rene Descartes

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Spend the first act with the dead (authors); the second with the living and the third act entirely belongs to you” – Gracian Balthazar

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” - Francis Bacon.

And the one close to my own feelings is a quote from:  A Prayer for Old Age (

“I suspect, though, that this is an ambivalence that haunts many of us who enjoy studying ideas and reading literature. Too often literature seems a form of escape rather than a solution to life’s problems. It is easier to read a romantic novel than it is to build real love in your life.

Still, I would argue that the major goal of reading and thinking should be to empower your life, not avoid it. Reading and thinking should enrich your life, make you happier, and give you the understanding you need to cope with an increasingly complex world. They should unite you with your world, not alienate you from it.

Most of all, though, they should create a passion for life that, no matter how foolish it may appear to others, provides meaning to your life”.  

While writing this essay I found a sentence in the Introduction to The Four Quartets of T S Eliot by Rev J C Woods. He says: “Life must be lived forward and understood backwards”. This is most appropriate to this essay. I used the methods outlined in this essay, often unknowingly, when I was in the “soaking up” phase of reading. Only now, I am looking back to see what I did. Since what I did was helpful to me, I am now sharing them with the younger generation. Nothing like finding things on your own. But getting a little help in the beginning is not all that bad either.

Those of us who grew up in the land of the Tamizh speaking people in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are very fortunate. Earlier part of the 20th century was a period of intense national fervor. It was also a period of intense literary activity. We grew up soon after or during the age of Bharatiyar and “Tamizh Thatha” (V.O.Swaminatha Iyer). This was the age of Na.Pichamurthy, Kalki, Pudumaipithan, Akilan, Devan, Jayakanthan, “Lakshmi”, “Sujata”, Annadurai, Thi.Ja.Ra, K V Jagannathan and many more Tamizh writers. Tamizh journals such as Anandavikatan, Kalki, Kalaimagal and Amudasurabhi were full of informative essays and serials on many topics and, also great fiction. We used to wait eagerly for the weekly issues and friendly rivalry among members of the family to be the first one to read the current issue was common. I remember how younger members of the family used to read the serial novels to the elders who could not read, often after lunch. That is how we learnt in our times, even those who could not read.

Why am I writing about this? For the simple reason that these same journals now publish titbits and anecdotes, most of them rumors and gossips about the so-called celebrities and politicians. Rarely does one find a solid classic in Tamizh in the pages. In this age of Text message and Twitter, the attention span has narrowed. Reading habits have changed. The journals have adapted to these habits and provide capsule items. There are even one-page stories. This, in turn, feeds into the shortened attention span and the cycle continues. How can this kind of reading broaden one’s knowledge or outlook on life? How can you learn difficult things by reading one page essays?

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