Four Kinds of Reading

Donald Hall in "Four Kinds of Reading" identifies four legitimate types of reading. The thrust of his argument is that not all reading is worthwhile, and literature is frequently misread, either as narcotic reading or as philosophical discourse. While this may be true, it is useful to examine the four kinds of reading material he identifies and explore how these types of reading materials are both read and used in notes.

Most academic writing requires students to read for information or ideas. The focus in reading here is primarily intellectual.

Reading for Information

The first kind of reading Hall identies is reading for information. Materials like newspapers are designed to be read quickly in order to find facts. Most newspaper sentences are no more than fifteen words; paragraphs, no longer than three sentences. The text appears in narrow columns so the reader's eye can quickly move down the page. Typically, readers do not read every word, but skim the page for key facts. Hall describes reading for information as

. . . reading to learn about a trade, or politics, or how to accomplish something. We read a newspaper this way, or most textbooks, or directions on how to assemble a bicycle. With most of this sort of material, the reader can learn to scan the page quickly, coming up with what he needs and ignoring what is irrelevant to him, like the rhythm of the sentence, or the play of metaphor. Courses in speed reading can help us read for this purpose, training the eye to jump quickly across the page. . . . Quick eye-reading is a necessity to anyone who wants to keep up with what's happening, or learn much of what has happened in the past. (Hall 164)

Note Taking: Much of the factual information that students will use in a research paper can be read this way. When taking notes, students should limit their notes to key nouns or phrases, and avoid adjectives or adverbs. Students should be especially careful about "lifting" verbs from their sources. If students use distinctive verbs or lists of nouns from the source, these should appear in quotation marks in the student paper.

Reading for Ideas

Unlike reading for information, reading for ideas is slow, and sometimes torturous. Ideas require careful thought in order to be understood. The fact that John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22nd, 1963, is a straightforward fact and easily understood. The answer to the question What were the immediate and long lasting effects of Kennedy’s assassination on the American psyche? requires careful thought and consideration.

While students can scan for information, ideas have to be appropriated which requires careful reflection. Students may need to re-read the material, take notes, spend time thinking about what was written, define words, research background and context, or discuss the material with a teacher or friend in order to comprehend complex ideas.

With a philosopher one reads slowly, as if it were literature, but much time must be spent with the eyes turned away from the pages, reflecting on the text. . . . [I]ntellectual writing . . . requires intellectual reading, which is slow because it is reflective and because the reader must pause to evaluate concepts. (Hall 165)

Note Taking: When reading complex material, students will need to jot down key nouns and then translate the original material into words the student understands. Sometimes it helps to summarize key ideas, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. The goal is to "digest" the material in order to understand it. Unfortunately, students often take the illegitimate shortcut of "cutting and pasting" ideas from the original source without filtering the ideas through their own consciousness. If a student cannot explain something he or she has read, the student cannot use it as source material.

These last two methods of reading apply primarily to writing about literature. The reader's goal in reading literature is to "feel" something, to connect to the writing on a visceral level.

Reading to Escape

Most people read novels to escape. What is sometimes called genre fiction or sometimes "pulp" fiction includes inexpensive and mass produced works of entertainment that people read to while away their time or ease their stress. While there is nothing wrong with some relaxing reading for pleasure, this type of reading seldom comes into play in the academic world. Hall describes escape reading as "narcotic reading" (Hall 165)

the automated daydream, the mild trip of the housewife and the tired businessman, interested not in experience and feeling but in turning off the possibilities of experience and feeling (Hall 165). . . . [T]he reader is in control: once the characters reach into the reader's feelings, he is able to stop reading, or glance away, or superimpose his own daydreams. (Hall 166)

Note Taking: Occasionally, an instructor might ask students to write a book review or personal reaction to a favorite book. When taking notes for this kind of assignment, students should focus on personal reactions to the reading and provide a summary of the plot. However, instructors will seldom expect students to read or write about literature in this way.

Reading to Engage

Unlike escape fiction, literature is meant to engage the reader in lived experience, so that readers wrestle with the emotional dilemmas that characters face. Hall suggests that

[i]f we read a work of literature properly, we read slowly, and we hear all the words. If our lips do not actually move, it's only laziness. The muscles in our throats move, and come together when we see the word "squeeze." We hear the sounds so accurately that if a syllable is missing in a line of poetry we hear the lack, though we may not know what we are lacking. In prose we accept the rhythms, and hear the adjacent sounds. We also register a track of feeling through the metaphors and associations of words. . . . [T]he great writers reward this attention. Only by the full exercise of our powers to receive language can we absorb their intelligence and their imagination. This kind of reading goes through the ear--though the eye takes in the print, and decodes it into sound--to the throat and the understanding, and it can never be quick. It is slow and sensual, a deep pleasure that begins with touch and ends with the sort of comprehension that we associate with dream. . . . To read literature is to be intimately involved with the words on the page, and never to think of them as the embodiments of ideas which can be expressed in other terms. . . . Great literature, if we read it well, opens us up to the world, and makes us more sensitive to it, as if we acquired eyes that could see through things and ears that could hear smaller sounds." (Hall 164-5)

Unlike escape literature, which though enjoyable and sometimes even intellectually stimulating, is often written quickly and following a formula, great works of literature are carefully and artistically crafted, wedding sound to sense.

Note Taking: When writing about a work of literature, students should strive to find the emotional center of the work (what is at stake). Students should note literary conventions, repetitions, and related ideas. It is often useful to identify things which seem confusing or strange because these often lie at the heart of the work's meaning. Again, it is often useful for students to summarize or paraphrase the whole work before beginning a detailed study of the interconnections between the parts of the work.

Works Cited

Hall, Donald. "Four Kinds of Reading." Thinking in Writing. 2nd ed. Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. New York: Knopf, 1983: 163-166. Print.

ENGL1010 Composition I