Reading, flow, and the joys of the English major

(I recently recovered this little piece I had written back in 2009 for English majors, before I knew about “contemplative pedagogy.”)

Much of the reading I do these days should be called “skimming.” I skim web pages looking for the main gist of an article, an answer to a specific question, or contact information. Many high school assignments actually trained me to do this kind of reading. For example, when I’d be assigned a chapter to read in a Social Studies textbook, I’d also be given a list of questions. By skimming for key words (i.e. “cotton gin”), I’d answer all of the questions correctly (“Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.”). I did not read. I hunted and gathered. I am now an excellent and efficient skimmer of online information.

But when I read, really read, other stuff happens in my brain. I use my memory, remembering conversations or experiences I’ve had or other texts I’ve read. I use my imagination, forming new connections and wrestling with unique constructions of thought. Rather than myopically hunting for a fact to complete an assignment, my curious mind ranges freely among sentences, allowing the text to act upon me.

When my brain is active like this, really engaged in a text, I enter the state called “flow.” I don’t recognize time passing. I am completely absorbed. I am both out of my body (ek-stasis) and deeply rooted in my body at the same time. It is utterly delicious!

I have a theory that all English majors have at some point experienced flow when reading or writing. What draws them to this major, perhaps unconsciously, is the desire to tap into that feeling on a regular basis. We’re looking to recover that particular kind of pleasure that lies beyond aesthetics, that’s rooted in the activity of our brains. Is this true for you?

I find that when I’m restless or bored by reading, it’s because I haven’t tapped into my own curiosity and energy. When I mindlessly approach literature as though it were an online article or textbook—skimming—I deny myself the ecstatic experience of losing and finding myself in active reading. What a relief and joy it is for me to remember that all I need to do is close my door, tune into the book, and become lost in the mental aerobics literature inspires my mind to perform.

Accessing that flow, that ecstasy, is part of our homework as English majors. Aren’t we lucky? We aren’t required to skim textbook material; we are instead, each evening, invited to plug our minds into a rich text and begin exchanging information with it, stretching our abilities to comprehend, imagine, and create. Each hour we have the opportunity to be moved and utterly absorbed—we simply need to remember that this is the goal of our reading, our purpose as English majors.

And so I invite you to come to your reading with an awake mind, eager to be fired up, to remember, and to imagine. This kind of reading not only inspires us to take notes, develop ideas, and ask questions in class. It also trains our brains to recognize patterns, to synthesize parts into a whole. When we read well, we have the big picture in sight, and we rarely feel overwhelmed by and lost among details.

Commercials, web pages, and magazines target us by our age, gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity. When we read these texts, we often encounter our own familiar version of reality reflected back to us. Literature is different. As English majors, we intentionally expose ourselves to texts that aren’t necessarily “meant” for us. Perhaps they were written a long time ago, or by someone on the other side of the world. As strong readers, we rejoice in the opportunity mingle with this “otherness.” Watch yourself when you next encounter a strange or difficult text. What do you do when you encounter such diversity? Do you neglect it? Run from it? Disconnect from it? Or, do you get curious about it?

I invite you to explore your own personal boundaries through strange and difficult texts. As you learn more about them, your own boundaries will shift. Your range of understanding will expand. You will get more confident and fearless in the face of the strange or difficult. Ignorance can feel pretty scary, but it’s temporary. We have the ability to activate our memories and imaginations to encounter difference with joyful curiosity. In fact, that’s our duty!

Active, alert reading that fires the memory and imagination can carry over into our lives and relationships. We can learn how to prioritize sentences and experiences, to linger on surprising phrases and people, to explore confusing concepts and situations.

We are so lucky! Our homework assignments have the capacity to be gateways to bliss. Are you up for the adventure?

“Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.”–  Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005

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