On the fine art of covert reading

March 10, 2010

Yesterday’s Salad has a respectable history as a literary blog.  In the past featured a word of the day column, and its contributors routinely discuss topics of urbane interest, ranging from the print margins of the New York Review of Books to the lesser-known declamations of Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Yet, apart from a few stray mentions of the Kindle, and the occasional discourse on what can be defined as a “text” nowadays, Yesterday’s Salad has had little to say about the act of reading itself.

Let it first be said that Yesterday’s Salad is in favor of it.  If there’s one thing that Yesterday’s Salad and Dora the Explorer have in common, it is the deeply held belief that literacy is important (and if there are two things, the other is that a so-called “spirited dissent” should not abrogate stare decisis). We endorse reading simply because it is pleasurable, meaningful, and enlightening.

How we read, however, is in a state of upheaval. There have probably been more blog postings on the death of newspapers than there have been newspaper articles in the last year, and predictions about the Kindle and the iPad have run so rampant that the consensus may be that reading be done via some sort of cerebral wi-fi connection by the next Apple product roll-out. Whether the number one title will be Sarah Palin’s mad-libs version of The Audacity of Hope, or the classic mash-up Crime and Punishment and Predator remains to be seen.

One question that has not entered into the debate over reading in the future is “when?” Namely, at what points in time will reading change.  Since the introduction of the paperback, books have been an eminently portable medium, and enterprising and literary-minded people have read them at nearly every point in the workday, from the train to the treadmill.  Obviously, if books are downloaded straight to the cerebrum, the answer is at any time.  However, for those of us not yet plugged into the matrix, there would seem to be huge gaps of time in which we cannot read: those times when we nominally give our full attention.

There are certainly some times at which Yesterday’s Salad does not endorse reading.  Reading while driving is a threat to oneself and others.  Similarly, reading during any hallowed interpersonal time, such as on a date, mentoring students, or playing catch with your children, is generally recommended against.  However, given that Yesterday’s Salad is such an unrelentingly intellectual blog, you might be surprised to find that we endorse reading during classes.

There exist many good reasons for reading in class.  Lecturers can be brilliant on the written page, but uninspiring in person. Similarly, a student who actually does assigned reading on time may find that lectures end up catering to the vast majority of students who do not.  And a case that often affects young medical students: when you need time to study for the next class. Without a doubt, in cases where one cannot gain from the teaching, there is nothing wrong with reading in class, provided that one does so with subtlety and style.  Here is a limited primer on how to accomplish this with a minimum of ruffled feathers:

Method 1: The Laptop

If you have the benefit of being in a large lecture hall, or a particularly tech savvy classroom, chances are that much of the class will have their laptops open already (this may be part of why you’re reading in the first place).  You can read on your laptop with impunity, although you may be limited to whatever can be placed in a .pdf.  Unfortunately, you have goofy blogs on the internet to distract you, so this really isn’t the best option.

Method 2: The bait and switch

If the amount of material you are reading can be photocopied, you’re in the clear.  While Yesterday’s Salad encourages you to use paper in an environmentally-responsible fashion, the truth is that almost nothing beats a stapled wad of papers.  It always looks awfully important, and can easily be mistaken for class notes or an outline that you lovingly prepared prior to class.  Bonus points if you’re reading a scientific article with very small print, as its serious-looking appearance will give your instructor the impression that you are thinking very-big-awfully-important thoughts about the subject matter upon which they are expounding, and should not be disturbed lest greatness be denied.

Method 3: The cover-up

This method is a little tricky, insofar as it requires both arts-and-crafts skills and a reasonable amount of judgment.  A common practice of elementary-school girls is papering over their textbook covers with other materials and decorating accordingly, and  you should be able to follow the example of these pint-sized masters of subterfuge. The addition of a little butcher paper wraps even the most luridly-illustrated tome in a veil of impenetrable secrecy. The only potential give-away the book’s size, which is where prudence comes into play. Do not try this on a book that is bigger than the largest textbook for the class, or suffer the consequences.

A more convenient way to pull this off is simply to hide whatever you’re reading in a manila folder, which can easily fit any amount of papers or most small books.  Not only does it not require facility with scissors and scotch tape, but nothing makes you look more serious about whatever it is you’re doing than a manila folder.  Trust us on this one – we read about it.  In class.

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