Reading Books Together

Since childhood I’ve been swinging a hammer, and have often felt the pain of slamming my thumb. And I know the pain of pounding that same thumb several more times in the same day (youwzah!). See building houses is in my roots, it’s in my blood. And I have the scars to prove it. One little mark reminds me of the time I shot a pneumatic framing nail completely through my ring finger (through flesh and bone). But it wasn’t all pain and blood. I can also tell you wonderful stories of learning from my father as I watched him build and create.

Long before I was trusted with a pneumatic nailer, my father taught me the proper setting of a framing nail. The process isn’t complicated. With the left hand you hold the nail steady and with the right hand you tap the head of the nail a few times, just enough so the nail will stand on its own. Then once the nail is set, you move your left hand out of the way and pound and sink the nail down with a few mighty swings. (Or, if you miss hitting the nail head squarely, it shoots across the room like a bullet).

Reading is a lot like setting a nail. As your eye scans back-and-forth across a page, streams of information pours out quickly and you have just enough time to tap those concepts into the surface of your brain. But if we read too fast we fail to comprehend deeply, and those nails will not hold and they will eventually fall out and be forgotten.

If setting a nail is likened to superficial comprehension that happens while we read, sinking nails tightly can be likened to the slow discussion of books with others. Here we slow our minds, we focus our thoughts, we express our understanding of our reading and we are shaped by others as we shape one another. Our minds slow and focus and allow us to sink a few of those nails tight.

But you cannot sink every nail. A good reading group will determine which of the few nails to drive tight. And the group can decide which nails to leave loose. But choose carefully. It’s the ideas and passages from books that are discussed most carefully with friends that are sunk the furthest, and those sunk the furthest are the ones you will carry the longest—likely for the remainder of your life.

It is true that reading is mostly a solitary task, and a very important one. Comprehension, on the other hand, is a community project. Which is why scholars, those experts in the art of comprehension, include lengthy bibliographies in the back of their books and order those books by name. Every scholar—every honest scholar at least—acknowledges the importance of learning from others. And they’re happy to acknowledge it.

It’s the average reader that needs persuasion about the importance of reading in community. And I am convinced that we forget so much of what we read not because we are poor readers (although this certainly could be the cause); rather, I believe we forget so much of what we read because we are selfish readers. And we all suffer for it.

Literacy and good books provide us the nails, disciplined reading sets the nails, and our community helps to sink those nails.

6 thoughts on “Reading Books Together

  1. If Literacy and good books provide us the nails, disciplined reading sets the nails, and our community helps to sink those nails, what does it mean when you miss the nail completely and slam your thumb? I must be watching too much tv! :)

  2. Bravo. Bravo Bravo!
    This is well communicated!
    I think I’m an “‘average reader’ that needs persuasion about reading in community.”
    I may also be a “selfish reader”, but probably more of a “lazy” or “undisciplined reader”. Thank you for your good thoughts and encouragement.
    How insightful are the thoughts on comprehension.
    I’m yearnihng for better “nail setting” and “nail sinking”.

  3. I had the great pleasure of working through Religious Affections this past summer with a reading group. It was a great experience.

    This is so true: “Comprehension, on the other hand, is a community project.”

    Great post!

    Have you ever considered doing an online reading group through your blog?

  4. Yes Tim, you are then watching too much tv. Funny comment!

    Jude: I’m kicking off a 16-month reading group in October, but this will be offline with a few friends. I’m really looking forward to it!!

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