beginnings…

August 4, 2012

He held in his hands a book ancient as the dark. It had the smell of must and decay, and yet miraculously it held together in one piece. Though this book had been neglected for untold number of years, it was once well worn; the brown hard leather cover dented on the corners, darkened and dipped from the grip of fingers, and broken in the spine; the yellow pages frayed and bent over. There was a bookmark there, as fragile as the pages which he feared to open, turn, and look…

When he was younger one of the places he would hide out when he was neglecting his studies was the library. He wasn’t there to learn; he was hiding: from teachers, from parents, from teenage drama, from life. Once he was in, it was easy to dip from row to row, and if someone looked suspicious, it was simply a matter of opening up a random book and thumbing through, acting like he was looking for something.

But the truth is, he was looking for something: for truth, for purpose, for need; he was looking for someone to rescue him; rather, for someone he might be called upon to rescue. He was looking for the fulfillment of his soul; the meaning of life. Yet as pain and emotion began to bubble up from his gut and take the form of words in his mind, sometimes those words would escape and hit the books he hid among. Most of the time they would bounce back in a silent cry of desperation, but sometimes they connected and caught words and titles and names and brought back ideas and the start of understanding was with them…

-Peter L Richardson

Has Huck Got Religion?

November 13, 2010

The Spiritual Journey of Huckleberry Finn  

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.
– Mark Twain, Notebook, 1879

It is pretty clear that Mark Twain was not a big supporter of religion; it is also pretty clear that he was not very fond of humanity as a whole. Twain once said, “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.” Yet in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn there can be found a spiritual theme deep within the character of Huckleberry Finn; this boy is not just a troubled kid making his way down the Mississippi River who happens to fall into chance adventure; I believe Huck represents a subconscious glimmer of hope that Mark Twain had for humanity. Huck’s journey down the river can even be viewed as an analogy of a spiritual baptism that Huck undergoes. In baptism, a person is submerged under water, symbolizing his death, and he rises up as new person possessing a life of hope and purpose. Huckleberry Finn is an abused child of an alcoholic father who is forced to fake his own death and escape his father by traveling down the Mississippi River. The river could symbolize Huck’s baptism and by the end of the book, after a series of circumstances that cause Huck to grow and mature, he emerges as a new man.

Twain states right off in his introduction that “persons attempting to find a moral in [this narrative] will be banished” (2). Perhaps the author wanted to downplay the spiritual analogy, or perhaps the author wasn’t even aware of it himself; his pen being guided by the hand of Providence just as Huck and Jim were being guided down the river. There is a certain amount of coincidence that is necessary in any work of fiction, yet in Huckleberry Finn there are greater forces at work that guide Huck and Jim to each adventure. Every time Huck finds himself on land he is exposed to negative circumstances, yet just as often an unusual coincidence helps Huck make his escape back to the river all the more wise and mature. Before Huck even thinks about his upcoming adventures, he is already able to distinguish between traditional religion and the principles of truth. Huck tells us: 

“Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there were two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there waren’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me…” (12).

It is this Providence that Huck commits to which guides him through the Mississippi and through each adventure he has. It is also this Providence that brings Huck to Jim; they were already tied together as it was Huck’s supposed death that caused Jim to run in the first place. It is when he teams up with Jim that Huck begins his spiritual growth into a new man. Jim becomes a father figure to Huck and teaches him about family and relationship. Huck reveals he is in the very beginning of his growth when, after offending Jim, he is able to “humble [himself] to a nigger” and apologize (84).

Huck and Jim miss their turn at the Ohio River and so miss the opportunity to free Jim and part ways. This again can be seen as the hand of Providence, if they were to part ways it surely would have ended the growth of character Huck was experiencing. Instead they are thrust down the Mississippi, deeper into the South and deeper into harm‘s way, where they end up in one adventure after another in which Huck observes the dark side of humanity and is tempted and challenged through many trials. After their raft is struck by a steamboat, Huck survives by submerging deep into the river and when he surfaces he cannot find Jim and believes him to be dead. He is taken in by the Grangerford’s, a good family who happen to be feuding with another family by the name of the Shepherdson’s. The feud was apparently started from offended pride, and the families can’t even remember who made the first offense but neither is willing to make peace. Eventually, Huck watches his new friend, Buck Grangerford, sacrifice himself for a completely pointless feud. The word, Grangerford, represents “farmer” and Shepherdson represents “sheep herder”, making the families analogous to Cain and Able. Their feud represents to Huck the foolishness of the feuding amongst all of mankind. Huck observes the fruit of unforgiveness and learns how ancient traditions keep men from living in peace.

After Huck flees the feuding, he and Jim reunite, but they end up with a couple of “rapscallions,” a “King” and a “Duke.” The King and the Duke are a couple of con-men who take over the raft that Jim and Huck have been traveling on. Huck learns all kinds of schemes from them, and other than the nuisance they are on the raft, Huck doesn’t seem too put off by their scandalous ways. That is until they take a scam too far and try to steal the inheritance from a group of orphaned sisters. Huck is quite taken by one of them, and seeing that they are good people, he decides to steal the money back for the girls. He does this at great risk to himself; if he’s caught, it will be assumed he is just trying to steal the money, and he also risks abuse from the King and the Duke. Huck learns to make sacrifices to protect those he cares for; he also learns that doing the right thing doesn’t always have a good result. Despite trying to help, Huck ends up being accused along with the King and the Duke when their scam is discovered. Though he escapes, so do they, and he and Jim are once again stuck with them on the raft. Huck knows by now that these two deserve justice for their crimes, yet he is still able to see the dignity that every human being deserves. When the King and Duke are finally captured they are tarred and feathered and led off to die. Even after they sell Jim away from Huck, he is able to have compassion for them, lamenting that “human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (222).

The culmination of Huck’s growth and maturity is summed up in his statement, “You can’t pray a lie.” After discovering Jim has been sold, Huck wonders whether or not he has done the right thing in helping him in the first place. Huck’s conscious is being challenged by the traditions and conventions of his time. Many Southern “Christians” at the time Twain was writing had perverted the gospel to justify the sin of American slavery. Huck had seen the hypocrisy of man, but he was taught that its falsehood was truth. While considering whether to write Miss Watson and turn Jim in, Huck feels the guilt of her False Providence condemning him: “…here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time…” (204). Huck tries to pray and ask to be “good” enough to betray Jim, but he can’t do it. He knows that in his heart he does not regret helping him. Not only can Huck not lie to himself, but he cannot lie to God either, yet it is not that Huck can’t hide his “sin” of helping Jim from God; it is, in fact, the Truth which has grown in Huck’s heart refusing to be hidden and emerging through Huck’s conscious. Huck tries to write a letter to Miss Watson, and then pray. At first he feels better, but his bond with Jim keeps him recalling moments of the love that had grown between them. Huck cannot hide from his heart, which tells him that helping Jim was truly the right thing to do, though he honestly believes that his actions are damnable. Huck’s conscious wins; Huck rejects all Southern tradition and convention. He is led by his compassion for Jim and sacrifices his eternal soul for his friend. Huck tears up the letter and declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (206). Jesus, referring to his sacrifice for mankind, declared that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (The Gospel of John 15:13). Though still a boy in years, Huck now emerges from the river a new man, fully mature in his spirit. Huck made the ultimate sacrifice for Jim; despite believing that he would be condemned to hell, Huck still refused to turn Jim in.

True Providence, the widow’s Providence, guided Huck and Jim down the river and caused Huck to grow and mature. Huck “died” from the dysfunctional heritage of his father; he learned a lifetime of truth on his raft, and he emerged from the water a changed person. It is evident in his relationship with Aunt Sally; what else but Providence could land Jim and Huck at the home of relatives of Huck’s good friend, Tom Sawyer? And, with Tom on his way to visit! Huck is able to receive her maternal care and even comes to respect and honor her out of love and not out of fear. Huck is concerned about her feelings, and deters himself from sneaking out one night so she would not worry. The Huck Finn at the beginning of the book would not have been so considerate. Huck’s comment to Aunt Sally about no one dieing on the steamboat accident, just a couple “niggers,” can easily be explained. Huck was in character. He was still pretending to be Tom Sawyer, and often on his journey with Jim, he spoke of him in such derogatory terms with strangers so as not to be found out. The only thing lacking in Huck at this point is self-confidence. Freeing Jim is just a game for Tom Sawyer, but for Huck it a matter of his conscious calling him to do the right thing, and his love for Jim. Even though Huck still trusts Tom’s ideas over his own, he only wants to see his friend get free and live with dignity.

The book ends with Huck almost independently wealthy since he is able to claim his reward money. His rejection of Aunt Sally’s adoption is not a rejection of all of humanity, rather he is simply rejecting man’s traditions and conventions that civilization has come to represent to him. Huck doesn’t try to escape civilization by returning to the safety and solitude of the river. Instead he is confident enough in himself to head out west, ahead of the settlers. He becomes a frontiersman, a leader to his fellow man, forging a new path for humanity to walk in. Huckleberry Finn represents the rejection of the traditions and conventions of “civilization” that cause us to be in separate factions and create fighting and general chaos. The ability to look at the heart of the matter and simply do the right thing; this is the legacy that Huckleberry Finn leaves behind; this is the faint glimmer of hope for humanity that flashed in the heart of Mark Twain.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain. C.1981, Bantam Books.

Peter L Richardson
July, 2003

Roads Go Ever Ever On…

December 22, 2009

Spiritual Applications of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Her son was having trouble going to bed again. I waited downstairs while she attempted to reason with a defiant three year old. Scanning her bookshelf, my eyes fell upon a hardback set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I picked it up and thumbed through it until there was peace upstairs. Finally, she reappeared.

            “That’s a great series, have you read it?”

            “No,” I said, “I own it though; I was hoping to read them before the movie comes out.”

            “Well, you better get started,” she laughed, “that’s only a few months away!”

And I’m glad I did. This series of books kept me inspired during my return to college and journey to finally get my bachelors degree. Long story short: I got married my freshman year of college right out of high school, had a kid, and dropped out. After the second child came along, I began taking classes part-time, but after a divorce, I was forced to get a second job just to make ends meet. The deferment of my dream to finish college and become a teacher seemed certain. Was this my fate; to stay in a series of dead end jobs that gave me no fulfillment, no sense of purpose? What kind of legacy would I leave my children? “Dad never finished college; he just gave up on his goals.” When things seemed darkest and most impossible, an opportunity to return to school full time appeared, but just like the Ring Bearer and his companions in Tolkien’s epic, this journey would come with many sacrifices and have an uncertain ending. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil forces of a once defeated Lord Sauron are rising up again. This Sauron once gained power through a Ring he wrought in secret. Through a series of seemingly meaningless events, this Ring came into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit of Middle Earth. When the power of the Ring is discovered, nine companions representing five different races of Middle Earth are chosen to carry the Ring to the only place it can be destroyed; the furnace of Mount Doom in the heart of the land of the enemy. The fellowship is eventually broken up, and Frodo and his servant and friend, Samwise Gamgee, must complete the quest on their own while the rest are forced to defend what’s left of Middle Earth in battle.

As I read The Lord of the Rings I was constantly inspired by the innocent determination of the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, the quiet confidence of Legolis, the elf, the gruff stubbornness of Gimli, the dwarf, the strength and valor of the men, Aragorn and Boromir, and the wisdom of Gandalf, the wizard. Right from the beginning, Tolkein began to teach me through Gandalf. I doubted my ability to handle going back to school full time as an adult with two kids to take care of and help to provide for, but in the second chapter of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, I read Gandalf’s advice to Frodo as he doubted his own ability to complete his task. Frodo was wondering how he ended up in such a situation and Gandalf encouraged him with, “Such questions cannot be answered…you may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and wits as you have” (95). I have determined to do likewise in my own adventures. I don’t know if I “have been chosen” to teach, but I am certain that God desires us to use the talents he’s given us for the good of others, and ultimately for the good of his kingdom. For me, teaching English made sense. In his forward to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical” (10). However, Tolkien is a Christian, and I think that God took advantage of his imagination. There are many life lessons and principles in his epic that come straight out of the Bible. The more I read these great books, and the more I watch the movies, the more treasures I find. I will only mention a few here.

The Ring of Power, wrought with evil intention, corrupts and ultimately destroys any good in anyone who possesses it and wields its power no matter how good their intentions are. Not even Gandalf, with his wisdom and strength of many years, was willing to risk the temptation of the Ring. Yet, for a time anyway, the innocent and pure heart of Frodo, the hobbit, was able to bear the burden of the Ring. Hobbits are childlike creatures, smaller in stature than men, and they possess a joy, peace and innocence in living that only children seem to possess in our world. It is no wonder that Jesus said if anyone wishes to possess the Kingdom of Heaven he must become like a little child, and likewise, the greatest among us will be like a little child (Matthew 18:2-4). If we work to put down our pride and seek to live a simple life of trust in God and his provision and his wisdom, if we become like little children, we also will be able to resist temptation when evil comes our way; however, if we trust in our own wisdom, and desire glory for ourselves, we will not be able to withstand the burden of our enemy, Satan. Only through childlike faith in Jesus can we be saved. We need to learn to trust in our Heavenly Father, and through that trust we can regain the childlike imagination to dream the impossible. 

Children are not as concerned with the lust for power and domination that has caused so much grief in the world, but as we all know, they do succumb to greed. Every parent cringes when they hear their bright-eyed, lovely child screech “Mine! Mine!” when friends are over. Likewise, Frodo finally succumbs to the power of the Ring at the end of his journey. Gollum is a creature who once possessed the Ring for many years. It is rumored that he was once very much like a hobbit himself; however, overtime the Ring eventually possessed him and slowly turned him into a wretched creature whose only thought was consumed in lust and greed for his “precious,” the Ring. Gollum tracks down Frodo and tries to kill him in order to take back his “precious.” Frodo gets the upper hand and has many opportunities to put Gollum to an end, but he heeds the advice of Gandalf to take pity on him. When he is finally standing at the furnace of Mount Doom, Frodo is unable to complete the purpose of his journey and destroy the Ring for his own greed to possess it. However, Gollum once again appears and fights for the Ring. He gains possession of it, but only to fall into the fire in the fight, thus destroying himself and the Ring. Gandalf’s advice for pity, and Frodo’s faithfulness to follow through is the principle that Jesus teaches us to show mercy to our enemies, and to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:43-48). We are to trust in God’s judgment and his justice, and just as Jesus died for us while we lived as enemies of God through our rebellious and sinful actions, we are to show the same love for others in hopes of their repentance. Additionally, we see the principle that God works all things out for the good of his purposes (Romans 8:28). We learn that even the purposes of evil can be manipulated to result in good. If Frodo had justifiably killed Gollum early in his journey, Gollum would not have been there to take the Ring from Frodo. Frodo would have eventually died at the hands of Sauron who would have taken possession of the Ring for his evil purposes, and if Frodo somehow did survive, he would have become like Gollum. However, Gollum’s life was taken only by his greed, and through no intentions of his own, he ended up saving Frodo from the pitiful fate he succumbed to.

Another Biblical principle found in The Lord of the Rings is that the trials and persecution of evil in our lives are often used to build character and train us for a greater purpose (Romans 5:4-6). We learn this in the journey of the hobbits and of King Aragorn. Aragorn first appears in the epic as Strider the Ranger, a mistrusted nomad who could use a bath, but we quickly learn the Rangers roam the land for the protection of travelers and they help anyone who is in need. Aragorn happens to be the sole heir in the broken line of the kings of men. There are many ancient prophecies that point to his purpose in Middle Earth, but he is at first unsure of himself and his ability to accomplish what he is called to do. As he walks out his journey and gives his life in service to others simply trying to help, he passes through many difficult trials that only increase in intensity. However, with each trial he survives he gains more confidence in himself and more honor from others. At the end of his journey he is a man with the strength and stature of a warrior, yet he is a warrior who possesses humility and wisdom from his experiences. He is a man worthy to take the crown of a king. Additionally, the hobbits, perhaps losing some of their innocence, gained much wisdom and strength in their journeys. When they were placed in the midst of violent battles, Merry and Pippin learned how to be valiant warriors. Upon returning to the Shire, their homeland, the group of hobbits found it overrun by a number of ruffian men. Merry and Pippin rallied together the hobbits and developed key battle strategies that enabled them to take back their home. This was their initiation into spiritual maturity, into adulthood in a sense. Before their return, Gandalf warned them of the dangers at home, but assured them they could handle it, “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for…you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high…” (Tolkien, The Return of the King, 341).

In the same way, Sam, who faithfully remained with his master and friend, Frodo, developed leadership skills and eventually became the mayor of the Shire. In my opinion, Sam is the most important character in the series. If Sam had not been so devoted to Frodo, Frodo would likely not have made it. We are called to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), Sam would often give up sleep, food and water to keep Frodo going, and at the end of their journey when Frodo could no longer walk at Mount Doom, Sam literally picked him up and carried him up the mountain. What a beautiful picture of servanthood! Jesus teaches us that whoever wants to be the greatest must become the least and the servant to all (Matthew 20:25-28). Sam, the man in the background, is the true hero of the epic. He always put others before himself, and he never sought any recognition for his sacrifices. Since Frodo had such long contact with the power of the Ring, he was plagued with unrest and was unable to stay at peace in the Shire. This testifies to the reality, that there are consequences from prolonged exposure to evil, whether we have spent much of our lives in sin, or if we suffered greatly at the hands of evil men. In Frodo’s case, he made a great sacrifice for the sake of others, and he also gained wisdom in his journey. He was given the honor of living among the elves and with Gandalf in the Grey Havens, a type of heaven, where he would be at peace, but he had to leave the home he loved and fought to protect. Sam is the most upset, but with the elf-like wisdom he had gained, Frodo explained to his faithful friend, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” (Tolkien, King, 382). Both Sam and Frodo teach us that we are to be willing to sacrifice our time and money, our very lives, for those in need. Most of us will not find ourselves on epic journeys to save the Earth; however, we are all wrapped up in the epic battle between good and evil everyday of our lives whether we choose to accept it or not. The choices we make often have epic proportions. Who knows how far and deep into the soul of a man the seed of a good deed may go, and how much fruit that seed may bear in others. Likewise, we don’t really know the consequences of our selfish actions either. We must be willing to follow the example of Jesus, and take up our cross daily for the common good of our fellow man.

And so this reality has hit home to me. I have already made many sacrifices for the protection of my children through my divorce; I have been forced to sacrifice many adult-relationships in order to spend quality time with my children during my time in school. Higher education was not cheap, and choosing to become a humble high-school-English-teacher has forced me to make many financial sacrifices for both myself and my children. Yet despite these trials, despite the daily battles I face for and with my students, and my battles with a world full of temptations that would lead me to destruction and distortion of the truth, I know I am doing what my God has called me to do. I have made many mistakes along the way: I have gone down wrong paths; I have given up true treasure for the sake of fool’s gold; I have fallen many, many times. Yet each time, my God has sent my fellowship of friends, brothers and sisters, to help me and encourage me in the journey, and this help assures me that he too is walking with me; and that, despite my foolish detours, he is constantly guiding me back on the right path and taking me further along to become the man he has called me to be. I have learned through the Word of God, and I have been vividly reminded through Tolkien’s imagination, that humility brings honor, trials produce strength and character, and often doing what is right and needed comes with great risk and sacrifice; yet we must persevere and always do what is right. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. Tolkien’s ability to communicate truth through fantasy is as incredible as it is inspiring. Had it not been for the movie coming out when it did, I might have put off reading this classic series, but typical of his actions for his children, God lovingly brought it to me when I really needed the inspiration, at the beginning of my own new adventure.   

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Parts 1, 2, & 3. Ballentine Books, New York: 1983.

Peter L Richardson
Fall 2001, revised December 2009.

“Roads Go Ever On”
 -John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journety new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Five Steps to Help You Understand What the Heck You’re Reading!

“I don’t talk things, sir. I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”  -Professor Faber from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

 

Introduction: We all have different backgrounds and cultures; we all have different experiences in our lives. To be frank, some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and others are born with a spoon full of heroine raging through their bloodstream. We cannot control where we come from. Studies have made it clear that children whose parents read to them on a regular basis from infancy will be more successful than their peers whose parents were unable to give the same attention. While we cannot choose our beginnings, there is a time in our lives when we are able to take control of our destiny, and it is much earlier than many people realize. In our modern world, literacy is not only essential for success; it is a minimum skill needed to just get by in life. Just knowing how to read is not good enough anymore, there needs to be genuine comprehension of what you are reading. For those children who grew up with books, reading comprehension seems to come natural. Just like a child growing up by the sea. She will seem to have a natural inclination towards swimming, but another child who lives inland usually has the same ability, just not the same opportunities to get in the water. Would we ever tell the second child she has no hope for learning how to swim? Of course not; it may be harder for her to train her muscles and lungs to work in the water, but with enough effort and time, she can successfully learn how to swim, and do it well. So it is with reading comprehension. It is a skill that has become second nature to many, but it is just a skill that can be learned by almost anyone willing to put the time and effort to train the neurons in their brain to fire up the imagination and the inquiry that leads to better understanding of a text. No matter what level of education you have, reading can still be a daunting task at times. If you or someone you love has struggled with reading in the past, take heart! Following are some relatively easy skills you can learn which will help you comprehend and understand almost anything you are confronted with. After enough practice, these skills will become second nature, and you’ll use them without even thinking about them. For now, keep this checklist with you and take it out anytime you feel intimidated by what you are reading.

 

STEP 1: What are you reading? Sounds simple, but you need to determine what kind of literature you’re reading before you even crack open the text. Following are various genres of writing that authors use to express themselves. You should have a basic understanding of the following literary terms, and you should be able to identify what you are reading just by looking at the form. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it a narrative, drama, poetry, or an essay? If it is an essay, is it expository or persuasive? If you don’t know the definition of any of these terms, look them up! When good readers can’t guess the meaning of the content through context clues, they will take the time to find out something they don’t understand in the text from other sources. Is it time consuming? Yes. But once you have gained the knowledge, you won’t have to research it again. It is worth your time.

 

STEP 2: What is the background and history of the work and/or its author? You will need to know something about the culture and history of the setting or topic of the work you are reading. If you are reading a novel set in Japan during the 1940’s, the more you know about Japanese culture and about World War II, the better you will understand the story, and the more you will enjoy it. A good example of the confusion that a lack of understanding of a culture or time period can cause is in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In an effort to get an A on a history presentation in a class they neglected all year, these guys stumble through time and wreck havoc while they try to collect important historical figures. They often end up in a lot of trouble and come close to death because they are clueless about the customs of the times and places they visit. You won’t risk death if you don’t read up on the background of a novel, but the lack of understanding can sometimes kill your enjoyment of what may be an excellent story. Often it is through fiction that we learn about different cultures and time periods; that is fine, but you must take the information with a grain of salt and realize that writers have prejudices and take liberties in their interpretations.

Likewise, knowing something about the author can really help you to understand what his/her main point is. For instance, if you learn an author is a dedicated communist before you read his work, you will be able to pick up anything antidemocratic more quickly. Writers are good with words; that is why they write, but they are not always the most intelligent source on the subject they write on. It is important to read everything with an open mind and a willingness to learn a new perspective, but at the same time, you should also always be “reading between the lines” and making thoughtful decisions to accept or reject what the writer is putting down on paper. Knowing the author’s angle beforehand will help you prevent being fooled by half truths and twisted thinking through elegant and passionate words. Think this step is not worth the time? Consider Hitler and the intelligent Germans who were swayed into the Nazi Party through his speeches and his interpretation of history.

 

STEP 3: Observation. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but it’s a good place to start. The problem is you can’t stop there; you need to dig deeper. Find out as much information as you can before you even start reading. With most texts you should be able to answer the 5 W’s and H just by taking in a good observation of the work. What are the 5 W’s and H? Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? First of all, skim all the titles, headings and bold print in the table of contents and throughout. This will give you a basic idea of what the book is going to be talking about. Next, look at all the pictures and charts in the book. Pictures, graphs and charts are carefully chosen for a reason; they are there to complement the content and enhance your understanding of it, yet many people just ignore them. Lastly, you should read the summaries that are printed on the back cover or inside the book jacket. We all like to get to the movies early to catch the new previews. Movie previews are meant to spark your interest and give you a good idea of the content of the film. Advertisers want to give you just enough information to draw you in and get you to spend your money on another show. Summaries on book covers are the same; without revealing the plot, they will introduce you to the major characters and give you a hint of the conflicts they may be facing. Will our heroes survive?!? 

 

STEP 4: Interpretation: Now you are finally ready to begin reading. Once you start the book you need to constantly be monitoring your understanding. The biggest question to ask is “WHY?” What is the author’s purpose for writing the text in the first place? What does the author want you to know or experience through his/her work? Following are three techniques you can use to find the answers:

  • Personal Connection. The best way to find the answer to these questions is to make personal connections with the work. What do you already know about the topic? What kind of experiences have you had that are similar to the characters in the story? What are your current beliefs? Find a way for your experiences in life to relate to the topic and main ideas. For instance, we’ve all been rejected by the opposite sex at one time or another, if the author is breaking the heart of one of his characters, allow yourself to experience the pain he/she is feeling. If the main character has obstacles to overcome, think of specific struggles you have been through and cheer him on.
  • Visualizing. Another skill you’ll want to practice is visualizing. This is simply forming word pictures in your mind. When an author is describing a tree, don’t just logically know what a tree is, but spend the time imagining what that tree actually looks like. Picture this: the branches gently swaying in the wind, as a few of the leaves, with faint hints of yellow and red, lazily float and find their way to the ground. The first sign that school would be upon us soon… Many people have told me that they just find reading to be boring. In my opinion, they are just not using their imagination. If all you can see when you read is black words on a white page, that is painfully boring! You have to look deeper into the meaning of the words and truly imagine what is being written. If it takes you longer to read that way, so what? Reading a good book is like eating a good steak, you need to slowly chew on the soft meat and savor the taste of the spices dancing on your tongue as the juices run throughout your mouth. Mmmm. Steak. Visualization is often essential to fully understanding a work.
  • Prediction. Last, but not least, you should always be trying to predict what is going to happen next. When we watch a movie, we are always trying to figure out how it’s going to end: Will the guy get the girl? Who is going to survive and who is going to get killed off? Books are no different. Because I like to read, I know most of the plot formulas that authors use when they write. Some of my friends hate to watch a movie with me because I can usually predict the end half way through it. I’ve pretty much learned to keep my mouth shut! (Two movies that managed to trick me: The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense.)  Prediction is an easy skill to master with stories, but it works just as well with nonfiction. When you are reading about science, try to imagine and predict what the next steps of a formula are going to be. If you are reading a persuasive essay, try to predict what the final argument will be, especially if you disagree; you’ll need to counter argue. The bottom line is, if you are trying to figure out what is going to happen, you are thinking about what has already happened, and thinking about the text is essential to understanding it.

 

STEP 5: Evaluation/Application. This begins during reading, but often can’t be fully completed until you are finished the work. First, you need to discover what the major themes, or most important ideas of the work are: find those life lessons and timeless truths hidden between the lines. Next, you need to ask, “How does this apply to my life?” We live in a time of unprecedented stimulation. Many people will give up reading a text just because they are not constantly feeling pleasure from it. It is true that good writers will leave you wanting to read more, and their skill with their craft will determine whether you make it to the end of their work, but a positive reading experience doesn’t always keep your brain stimulated at a high level. More often the stimulation is slow and subtle. Have you learned a new skill or gained useful information? Does the work change the way you feel about the topic, or has it reinforced your beliefs? If it has any impact at all, you can give the work a positive evaluation. It was worth your time. When you are reading for pleasure or self-interest, this stage may only take place in the form of deep thinking. You may find yourself washing the dishes or mowing the lawn and mulling over something you read that in the moment didn’t have much of an impact, but now you can’t get that phrase out of your mind. When you take the time to think about and evaluate what you’ve read after you’ve finished reading it, you are well on your way to comprehending it. The next step is to apply what you have learned to your life. Maybe you’ve read a novel set in Mexico and you fell in love with the culture, so you try an authentic Mexican Restaurant. After that, you begin planning your vacation to experience the culture first hand. Or you’ve been raised to believe a certain doctrine all your life that you just accepted as truth. You read an article that challenges your belief; you spend many sleepless nights trying to figure out what to believe, so you do more research on the subject and hear both sides of the argument. Whatever the outcome, whether you change your beliefs or become more grounded in them, you are still better off from the inner struggle; you have grown as a person. The most important thing to consider is how the material has enhanced your life. Did it increase your knowledge, provide an experience, change/reinforce your beliefs, or all the above? If you can answer yes to any of these questions you have had a successful experience with a book.

 

Conclusion: This is the reason we read, simply because reading causes us to think and evaluate life. Reading forces us to discover new ideas and new worlds. It opens our minds to the endless possibilities, and in the overwhelming process of the search, we begin to see a path develop towards something like truth, if not truth itself. If your source of information is dominated by quick sound bites on internet searches or talking heads in their endless cycle of shouting matches, you will never learn to truly think for yourself about the issues, because you don’t give yourself the time needed to think. If your source of entertainment is dominated by visual stimulations of graphic sex, longer action scenes, and insulting, crude humor, you will never develop the full potential of what true feelings are meant to mature into, because you will never allow yourself to move past emotional adolescence through the wisdom and experience of others. Movies and documentaries have the potential to offer thought provoking issues and ideas that can move your soul and cause you to think, but in our pleasure obsessed society this kind of media is hard to find, and the stimulation fizzles out and falls flat. True stimulation that lasts longer than the moment is more likely to be found in a book.

Peter L Richardson
2006

 

“Wordplay”

What’s in a word?
What’s in a rhyme?
Is it the silent tick-tock of time?
Are they definition, description or meaning?
Are they truth, fact or seeming?
A word is empty without sight.
The sun is darkness without light.

Peter L Richardson
1996