A Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

What does it mean to be “a reader” and how do you become one?

Photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash

It’s a term I remember my parents using to describe me as a kid although I never gave it much thought at the time. But now I see my own son showing the same compulsive reading habits, I’ve come to realise that being a reader goes beyond a simple ability and willingness to read. It is closer to a personality trait, even an identity — like being tall or having natural singing ability.

I’m not entirely sure how and when I shifted from being someone who could read to being “a reader”, but I certainly started thinking about the process of reading more seriously when I found myself in Mr Sinclair’s Advanced English class in my penultimate year at high school.

I’d always done reasonably well in English and, if I gave it much thought at all, I would probably have said reading was something you were either good at or not. Within a few days of starting in Mr Sinclair’s class, though, I knew I was completely out of my depth.

Mr Sinclair took the view that if you wanted to study English, you might as well dive into the deep end. So we started with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I still remember the panic I felt when I read the opening paragraphs:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

It made no sense at all. It seemed more like gibberish than anything else. If this was the sort of thing we were going to be studying all year, I was well and truly screwed.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one. None of my classmates had a clue either. But as we read on over the next few weeks, I found myself starting to pick up the rhythm of Joyce’s writing. And once Mr Sinclair explained the concept of the Künstlerroman — a narrative about how an artist develops — I began to get a sense of what Joyce might have been trying to do.

After Joyce, I dimly remember reading the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow and Waiting for Godot. I assume there was some Shakespeare in there too. But in that year, I learned more about how to read than anything to do with the specific texts.

Mr Sinclair was a tall man with a quick wit and a short, sharp bark of a laugh. He put a lot of effort into his teaching and was hugely enthusiastic about the texts, so if we hadn’t read the prescribed chapter or poem before class, he would often take it as a personal affront. He would ask someone a question and when they couldn’t answer, he would try someone else. When they also looked at him blankly, he would lose his patience entirely and turn to the blackboard, where he would write out the lesson in frustrated silence.

As long as we had done the reading required, though, he seemed to genuinely enjoy our company and the discussions we had in class. Which made me realise that while the basic act of reading might be a solitary and silent affair, it only comes to fruition through debate and the exchange of ideas. Contrary to what I had thought previously, reading could be communal.

It was from those discussions that meaning revealed itself to be fluid. Whereas my previous teachers had tended to focus on a single interpretation, which implied in turn that your reading could be right or wrong, Mr Sinclair encouraged us to see that the meaning of a text was not fixed in stone and was created as much by the reader as by the writer. Not only might our interpretations be very different to someone else’s — someone separate from us in time or place or circumstance — but our own interpretations might change over time. We might be different readers in our teens than we would become in our 40s. We might even be largely different people.

Over the course of that year, I learned that the language used in a book — or indeed in daily life — is not inevitable. Someone has made a choice to use those particular words in that particular way. I discovered that language never provides a transparent window onto the world but that it has its own quirks and biases, and that it can tint and distort the world it purports to describe in subtle, often unconscious ways.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I realised that, as with any skill, you need to push yourself if you want to improve as a reader. You might not necessarily enjoy everything you read but there is always a chance it will show you the world in a different way, perhaps even get you thinking in a different way. Reading might not always be pleasurable but it can still be valuable.

Not only did that year kickstart my love for James Joyce, it prompted me to study English at university. Years later, I finished a PhD and spent several years lecturing, teaching authors including Joyce.

Like Mr Sinclair, I would get intensely frustrated when students hadn’t done the reading in advance. But the greatest pleasure I felt during those years came from the occasional glimpse of a mind shifting and the world being seen afresh.

I’m an avid reader from Wellington, New Zealand. History, crime fiction, literary classic. You name it, I’ll read it. Twitter @pileobooks