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Reading is quite a simple activity once you’ve got to grips with holding the text, keeping your eyes open, sitting up, or lying down, and understanding the words in the right sequence. Listening to books is almost equivalent but the only problem with audio books is trying to use the non-existent index, or finding specific pages, which is a lot trickier.

Reading can be fun, entertaining, informative, an escape, a thrill, and even an implied conversation with another person.

Then it gets serious, with theory and perspectives and -isms, loads of them which make reading a political act equivalent to mounting the barricades and creating a better world. Somehow, to be a good reader you have to be molded. It’s a long way from simply reading an invented world rendered with creative flair.

If you’ve got this far you can select four answers to the question: What should a reader be to be a good reader?

1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

I didn’t choose any of the statements offered, but I did reflect how each one of the statements relates to a theory of reading, or indeed, how to enjoy story-telling whether in movies or in print. Engaging with the hero or heroine is the sine qua non of movie stories; unsympathetic heroes are not commercially feasible. Some authors are only seen in social context, Dickens and Zola, for example. Quite often the book is a means to encounter social history, not the text, its material, its syntax and metaphor, but the plight or condition of characters in a social setting.

The ten statements were created by Nabokov, who gave them to his students, without prescription as to what they should put, but, so it is said, many of them became better readers after his course. As with science, asking the right questions is much more valuable than diktats on how to act. These statements remove the limitations of curriculum, of ideology and agendas, of the -isms of textual applications, and return them to the reader to revive the connection with the page and the words.

But there is one other aspect to reading and that is re-reading. It is something I do frequently and when I discovered Nabokov’s test I learnt that he did too, for very good reasons. A book is a fabulously complex thing and re-reading is a way to find more, to have more revealed, to see differences, and ultimately to be engaged more fully with the work.

Finally, to a fine writer – happy 70th Joni Mitchell.

Guy Cranswick
8th November 2013