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Up the Rope Ladder
On the Magic of Reading
I felt the paper underneath my little fingers as my eyes followed the sentence to conclusion. Barely pausing to catch my breath, I eagerly flipped the page. I savored the satisfying rustle that filled my ears.
A chapter book! I was actually reading a chapter book! In elementary school, the first book in the “Magic Tree House” series: "Dinosaurs Before Dark" changed my life.
In the "Magic Tree House" books, siblings Jack and Annie discover a magical tree house filled with books. Every book in the series begins in the same way. Jack and Annie climb up a rope ladder, pick a book to read, and make a wish. Upon wishing, the magic of the book would whisk them away to faraway lands and ancient eras.
When I read “The Magic Tree House,” I felt like I was right there with Jack and Annie, experiencing all of their excitement, fear, and elation. There was a magic to the way that words flowed off the page and into my imagination. I no longer wanted to see pictures in books. Images felt too constraining, almost lifeless compared to the worlds I was conjuring in my head.
Years later, my reading has expanded and contracted seasonally. There have been stretches of time where I’ve devoured history, religion, economics, and business. There are others where I’ve jumped back into fantasy and fiction. There are weeks where I haven’t read at all. In the quiet moments when I’m present with the pages, I can still feel the glimmers of the magic from my childhood.
I recently read the highly and widely recommended “How to Read a Book.” I’ve completed it once, and I intend to revisit it often. The book gave me a vocabulary for some of that magic I felt.
⭐️ All quoted content in this post is from “How to Read a Book” by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler.
Reading is an Invitation to Create
Reading, from the outside, appears to be a passive activity. It can feel as if an information download (aka, consumption) should require little to no effort compared to an information upload (aka, creation). That’s not the case.
“Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed.”
When we read, we are invited to build a world in our minds, following a trail made visible to us by the author. The shape, environment, size, and quality of this world is entirely up to us.
Reading, as I’ve learned, can also be seen as a conversation with the author. In the same way that we dialogue with a person, we can speak to a book, ask it questions, and see if it has answers for us.
“If you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world.”
Rather than a passive act of consumption, reading is a vibrantly creative action.
Books are Alive
Since the author isn’t physically present when we’re reading, we as readers have to do the work to find answers to the questions we’re asking. A piece of writing may reply to those questions in adequate or inadequate ways. Still, searching for answers is a worthy journey. Like a meandering discussion with a friend over bottomless cups of coffee, we never know what we can uncover in the conversation with a text along the way.
I’ve often heard people feeling “called to” by a book. I’ve certainly felt the call myself. There’s something curious about this pull we might feel towards a book that we haven’t read yet.
Books and essays now appear to me as if they are living things. More than simple stacks of paper bound together or dispassionate screens of text, they contain wisdom, vibration, and energy. At different points in our lives, any given text might resonate with us in uncanny ways.
Some of the energy in great books, however, could feel locked to us, since our skill to uncover a book’s wisdom isn’t yet strong enough.
Reading is Perplexing
It isn’t fun to read books that are hard to get through. I think of ones written in different time periods, with ranges of contexts, even some that have been translated. Being confused by a book can feel disorienting and discouraging.
“Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.”
But reading is like any other craft. It has that inexplicable creative energy associated with it. We aren’t immediately good at it. It takes grit to read through a challenging book. We may glean a small fraction of a story on the initial read-through. It takes some dedication to commit to a re-read where analysis is the goal. It takes time to become adept.
From your point of view as a reader, the sentences important for you are those that require an effort of interpretation because, at first sight, they are not perfectly intelligible.
It’s okay to not understand everything we read. That’s part of the magic. By pushing ourselves through the confusion, we can discover the wonder hidden within books.
“Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.”
I’m committed to pursuing the craft of reading well. As I spend more hours with the pages, I can’t wait to feel the thrum of magic — the same magic I felt when Jack and Annie climbed up the rope ladder and into the magic treehouse.
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