The crucial task of engaging with the stories you love (or hate).


“Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.”

—Mark Haddon

There’s nothing like reading a good book. It could be discussing something controversial or universally accepted. But a good book always keeps you hooked all the way through—a desire most writers have.

Most of us forget what we read not long after reading it, though. Even the best stories fade from our minds. Nights scrunched up on the couch next to soft light are lost to ineffective reading.

The reason it’s ineffective? You weren’t engaging with the author

Many readers assume the act of reading with a pen (or pencil) in hand is counterproductive. They insist on holding to the idea that anything hindering their flow doesn’t belong anywhere in sight.

On one hand, trying to pause every three seconds to circle an unfamiliar word, highlight a sentence or two, or underline a phrase does slow down the reading process. After all, who wants to take forever to read a few pages? 

On the other hand, however, readers often fail to identify their primary motive for reading a particular piece from the start. And sometimes, even when they do, they’re left with short-lived excitement for the reading.

I can agree with the frustration stemming from the notion that good reading takes time. But if you’re not aiming to learn anything from what you read, why read anything at all? 

Finding the Point

In my small sphere of close friends, three types of readers exist. Those who prefer the challenging stuff, the kind of phrases and word choices that make their brains do cartwheels.

They love the challenge of tackling the most complex ideas because it stimulates their intellectual side. I don’t blame them. There’s nothing wrong with stretching your knowledge capacity.

Yet, others would rather read something they can easily understand. A short story that grabs their attention and keeps it to the end, without losing touch with the main idea.

Then there are those (like myself) who enjoy a little bit of both.

I want to read intellectually challenging stories — pieces that push my understandings to new limits. But I also want to absorb carefully written personal essays that are down to earth and relatable.

Regardless of where you fit in, the most important aspect of reading is locating the point. Without it, you’re just wasting your time (and you’ll end up more confused than you already were).

Every story has (or should have) a point—the main idea. When there’s no driving factor, readers are destined to be lead down a rabbit trail that leads nowhere. 

As a person who loves to read, I only dive into the things that interest me. Even if it’s about a topic I’m unfamiliar with, interesting stories have a way of tugging at my curiosity.

But before you even understand the main idea of the story you set out to read, you need a point to why I’m reading it in the first place.

Most of the time you’ll find the title to be one of the most important elements attracting you to read the full story. And that’s usually based on how point-focused it is.

Suspense is fine but to a point, especially when the actual story has nothing to do with the title (which would make anyone go crazy).

In the grand scheme of things, if we don’t identify our motives behind what we absorb, we’ll give up after a while of wandering in no man’s land. That’s why it’s always good to know why you read something—anything.

How to Engage with the Author

I used to read and read, then forget and forget some more. At first, I didn’t understand why I was unable to comprehend the stories I would read. Until I realize my lack of engagement with them.

You may ask, “Why would I want to spend time writing when I just want to read?” (And I’m so glad you asked!) Because it’s the best way to pull meaning out a piece that matters to you.

Whether you accept it or not, reading is a conversation between you and the author. There’s no conversation without two (or more) parties chatting in dialogue together—book clubs still exist.

The most common ways to interact with a story include (but are definitely not limited to):

  • highlighting sentences that stand out
  • circling unfamiliar words and defining them later
  • underlining key phrases

Personally, I also like to reflect on a chapter after reading it by writing a few paragraphs bringing out key parts. It tests my understanding and perspective of what the author communicated.

The simple act of highlighting a story, whenever something stands out to you, seems like a waste of time. But it actually helps solidify the point in your brain.

You’d be surprised at how much you remember after doing it.

One of the best parts of marking up what you read rests in the fact that it is subjective. You don’t have to underline the same area as someone else. You can be free to scribble on what moves you.

In a way, learning with engagement goes with anything. For us to catch hold of the meaning of things, and even how to go about doing them, we have to be hands on.

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Aiming to Learn, Not to Finish

Good reading is often ignored for the sake of finishing, which is unfortunate. The goal should always be to learn from what you observe, taking in something that wasn’t known before (or was seen differently).

In our society today people are more willing to speak before than to listen. Their views are by default the only one(s) that hold any value. Instead of opening up to others, they close themselves in as models of willful ignorance.

This is also true when it comes to reading. Some view reading with presupposed ideas set in stone. And regardless of what the author says, they refuse to question anything at all. It’s a damaging reality.

To properly examine an author’s point of view, you have to first be honest with what they are expressing. That means listening carefully to what they are saying.

Having this in mind raises the chances that you’ll take something with you from what they’ve written, whether you agree with them or not. Before you know it, you’ll create a habit of doing the same in conversations too.

Reading is rewarding. The combination of words and creativity tend to take us on amazing journeys without ever leaving the house. It does us no good to neglect the impact of interacting with those who write them.

The next time you open a story, have a point for why you’re reading it, have a pen (or pencil) nearby, and be willing to learn something new. It’s not so much about getting to the end as it is about establishing critical thought.

In the end, you won’t come out on the other side as simply a better reader. You’ll be a better person, open to a wide range of perspectives that exist in our world. And your arguments will carry weight, thoughtfulness, and respect.


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