Variety is the Spice of Active Reading

I had cause to write, the other day, of the tradition of baking books. In doing so I was, of course, extending a conversation that I have been having on this blog for several years now.  The subject of that conversation is Active Reading; the means by which the adventurous reader breaks out of the standard ‘sitting in an armchair’ mode and embraces all manner of other reading methods, whether it be reading on a bike, reading up a tree, or reading whilst hand-gliding.

The expert on this matter was none other than Johannes Speyer, my late mentor (see here for more of him). For Speyer, reading was not an activity to be taken lightly. When you take up a book, you are engaged in a serious creative activity; one which requires a certain amount of mental, even physical, preparation. There was never anything off-hand about Speyer’s reading habits. This was a man who planned ahead.

Which leads me to a more general question. How do we (or, indeed, should we) prepare for reading? Under what conditions might we enter a book – and how do those conditions affect our reading of that book? Or, to put it another way: how does one approach reading foreplay?

What do we do to books, and to ourselves, before we slide into the first page? Speyer did all manner of things to get him, and his books, ready for reading. He sprinkled them in dirt, he soaked them in wine, he hung them upside-down in smokehouses. He tied them up in ribbons, which he removed, one by one, before opening the covers. He read whilst naked, or clothed in fourteen layers of silk. He meditated for eight hours before turning his mind to a text, or set his alarm to wake him in the night in order to read a single sentence before slipping back into sleep.

Variety was the spice of Speyer’s reading habits. He stuck to nothing; resolved to trying out new methods, regardless of success. Others have been less patient, developing a practise which they repeat over and over again. One man I know goes on a five mile run before starting any novel. Another showers several times before picking up a newspaper. Still others will only read at night, under the covers, by the light of a torch. I went through a period of only reading on an empty stomach. Whatever gets you in the mood.


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