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.